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Buses, baseball, and encounters with Bush

On cross-country trip, Kerry hits small towns, targeting GOP and swing voters.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2004



MUSKEGON, MICH.

For a brief moment, John Kerry looks like King of the World. He's standing on the top deck of the Lake Express ferry, pressed up against the railing in an unmistakable Leonardo DiCaprio pose. Mr. Kerry came up here to wave to the supporters who (along with some protesters) are lining the shore to watch the candidate head out across Lake Michigan. The high-speed ferry's staff has already warned that once the boat passes the causeway - and accelerates up to 50 m.p.h. - remaining on deck is not advised.

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But Kerry doesn't budge, staunchly holding his pose even as the wind whips through his hair, his pants and shirt flapping wildly. "Woo!" he says jokingly to the scrum of reporters trying to hold onto blowing notebooks and press credentials. It's understandable - this is, after all, a man who appeared on the cover of American Windsurfer magazine, and who, just before the Democratic convention, went kitesurfing off Nantucket.

Perhaps more to the point, wind - of the political sort - is something Kerry hasn't seen much of lately. As the Massachusetts senator and his running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, inch their way westward by train, bus, and boat, their trip seems somehow symbolic of a campaign that has become more of a tough slog than a wild ride.

Most polls show Kerry holding a slight lead, but having garnered one of the smallest postconvention bounces in history. Meanwhile, President Bush's approval ratings have remained lodged under 50 percent since last February.

Behind this lack of movement is an electorate that has, for the most part, already lined up behind one candidate or the other, leaving an unusually small pool of undecided voters who could shift the dynamics of the campaign.

While it's possible the race could break open at some point, both campaigns seem stuck, for now, in a holding pattern, where progress is limited and every additional vote hard-earned.

Still, if it's frustrating, Kerry doesn't show it. Like all postconvention trips, Kerry's "Believe in America" tour is a nostalgia-laden, choreographed series of rallies and "unplanned" stops through small towns and quintessentially American settings. There's a deliberately retro feel to the trip, evident in everything from the signs, which are printed in Wild West-type font, to the music of "Johnny B. Goode" playing at every stop.

There's almost no spontaneity - save for the occasionally unpredictable remark from Teresa Heinz Kerry, such as her now-famous comment to a group of hecklers in Milwaukee chanting "four more years," that "they want four more years of hell." (The exchange also provoked a rare unscripted line from Kerry, who came to his wife's defense by telling the crowd he'd like to "thank George Bush for sending the goons here tonight to excite us to do a little more work.")

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