PORTSMOUTH, OHIO — The last time a sitting president rolled through this Ohio River town - known, among other things, for its colorful flood-wall murals - was 72 years ago. So when George W. Bush dropped by for an "Ask President Bush" event last week, Dave Gable was so overcome with anticipation he "could almost cry," he said, only half-joking.
But after seeing the president up close for over an hour, what struck Mr. Gable most was how comfortable - and approachable - Mr. Bush seemed on the stump. "He likes it," surmised Gable, who works for the farm credit system. "I don't think John Kerry is as relaxed talking in front of people like us," he added. "That's a gift. I don't think you can make yourself that way."
As Bush and Senator Kerry concentrate their efforts on a shrinking handful of battleground states, Bush is working particularly hard to woo voters in small towns like Portsmouth - where, the president's advisers believe, he must generate a sizable turnout in order to overcome Kerry's natural advantage in the bigger cities.
The strategy presents a challenge in terms of mileage, since rural counties tend to be sparsely populated. Yet in many of these areas, a mere glimpse of the president can offer something of a thrill. In tiny Ironton, Ohio, a huge crowd turns out to hear the president speak for a total of two minutes in front of the courthouse. As the motorcade passes through other towns, folks wave from porches, and rows of schoolchildren line the roads, waving tiny flags.
Still, excitement over a presidential visit doesn't guarantee votes. So Bush is also working to convince small-town residents that, behind all the official trappings, he's a regular guy like them. The hope is that a sense of cultural affinity may trump simmering economic frustrations - and high jobless rates - that could otherwise lead these voters to the Democratic Party.
"I like to get out with the people," Bush tells a crowd of 15,000, many of whom came from miles away, to see him at the county fairgrounds in Chillicothe, Ohio. "I like to tell people where I stand."
Even many Democrats admit that Bush's down-home style offers him a distinct advantage in the race against Kerry, who tends to convey a more elite persona - even though Bush's background is every bit as privileged. "Clearly, one of Bush's great political strengths is his ability to come across as an ordinary Joe," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic group.
Waiting for the president to arrive at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington, W.Va., the crowd waves the usual mass-printed signs, such as: Sportsmen for Bush or Veterans for Bush. But there are also a number of hand-painted placards (often produced by the campaign as well) designed to convey a more personal connection: "George is my hero," reads one, while another says: "Guts: You Got 'Em Bush."
The atmosphere is a cross between a rock concert and a religious revival. A country band entertains the crowd, playing tunes like "Ring of Fire." The band plays "Take Me Home, Country Roads" twice. ("It's about your home state," the singer tells the crowd by way of explanation, as the lights dim and everyone waves green glow sticks.) When an overhead screen shows the presidential motorcade pulling into town, the crowd screams.
On this day, the president is campaigning with Georgia Sen. Zell Miller (D), the keynote speaker at the GOP convention, in an effort to win over culturally conservative Democrats - people like Marsha and Kenney Chastain. Both are firm in their support for Bush. "I like him," says Marsha, who works at the courthouse in Huntington. "I just feel like he's really down to earth."
When he begins speaking, Bush returns the compliment, reminding the crowd it's not the first time he's been to Huntington. "I've liked it every time I've come," he says. "The people are down to earth, hardworking, decent. And they love America, just like I do." Of course, this doesn't mean the president is relying on charm alone, or acting like someone who's got a lead. At every stop, he says: "I'm here to ask for the vote."
Certainly, the president is far from universally popular: The motorcade repeatedly passes by clusters of protestors, who hold signs saying things like: "War is Big Business," and "My husband lost 3 jobs." In Ironton, a man holds one reading, "Welcome to the poorest county in Ohio." Bush alludes to the economic troubles: "I'm fully aware that there are some communities in your great state that need help."
He also attacks Kerry sharply and repeatedly, accusing him of having "more positions" on Iraq than the rest of the US Senate combined. He hammers Kerry's proposal to raise revenue for new programs by, as the president puts it, "taxing the rich." "You've heard that line before," Bush tells the crowd, adding they know what will happen next: "The rich hire accountants and lawyers, and you get stuck with the bill."
Bush also defends his record passionately, at times shouting to get his point across (although, at these ticketed events, he's hardly talking to skeptics). "Just getting wound up here!" he says after a particularly vigorous defense of his Medicare plan.
But he also injects humor, frequently. The drawl thickens noticeably at times. "By the way, I always thought Roy Rogers was from Texas," Bush wryly tells the crowd in Portsmouth, of the Cincinnati-born star. A farmer asking a question from the top row says he just came from clearing out cow manure. Bush responds: "No wonder you're sitting way up there."
Another man, selected in advance to talk about how Bush's tax cut saved his family $1,700, mentions that he's a high school baseball coach. "Yeah, I'm a baseball fan," the president says, as the crowd laughs. "I'm a fan because I peaked in Little League. Ball started to curve."
It's that kind of banter that could help him establish a sense of personal connection - and that those attending Bush's events may be most likely to remember and repeat. Wrapping up the campaign stop, Bush says he can only take a few more questions, shaking off the crowd's good-humored protests: "Ole Zell and I got to get on a bus and head down the road."