Gathering steam, at 35 m.p.h.

It's 1:56 p.m., and down by the Monongahela River on a glowing Pittsburgh afternoon, newly minted Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush is whipping up a crowd from the back platform of a bygone-era rail car. They're here to see him off on a train trip across the heartland.

In this high-tech, high-speed age, Mr. Bush's first major act as nominee was to board a 1950s-era train. Average speed: about 35 m.p.h.

Vice President Al Gore will take a similar trip after his convention, a Great Lakes and Mississippi River boat tour. Bush's train trip continues later this week in California.

But these low-tech journeys aren't just window dressing. Voters are roughly split between the two candidates on the issues. So peoples' comfort level with each - their ability to feel like they connect with him - will help determine who makes the journey up Pennsylvania Avenue, presumably on foot, this fall.

For the moment, Governor Bush has been doing better at projecting a likeable image, and the train trip is designed in part to build on his budding aura of affability as well as to shore up support in key swing states.

Certainly, making these personal connections from the stoop of a rail car or the deck of a paddlewheeler - or any tableau of Americana - can help. It has before. The icon of straight talk, Harry Truman, beat the unbeatable Thomas Dewey in 1948 in part by showcasing his folksy style from the back of a train.

For Ronald Reagan, it was an "aw, shucks" approach that persuaded people he wasn't a right-wing radical - and helped lift him to victory over Jimmy Carter.

For Bill Clinton, the main issue was "the economy, stupid," but there also had to be a connection with people. A cross-country bus trip - and the "Man From Hope" video at the 1992 convention - were key.

It's 2:23 p.m. - and as the media horde hustles to get aboard, the whistle bellows, confetti floats onto the crowd, and the train inches away. Bush's quest for connections begins.

Choosing to do the trip by train, says Bush's chief strategist Karl Rove, sprawling in a spacious press car, was simply a matter of picking the most-efficient form of transportation. "It's kind of like a bus," he says, "although you have a harder time stopping at Hardee's for a burger."

But the 16-car train is hardly a Greyhound. And the food is a bit better than at Hardee's.

Bush's two cars are transportation Rembrandts - shiny maroon on the outside, opulent maple on the inside. The campaign clearly values the symbolism of it all: They've hired a crew to shoot footage - likely for later use in TV ads.

And the usual media fare of boxed lunches and skimpy salads is now a cornucopia of salmon and pan-seared tuna. Astonished cries of "Did you have the caviar?" echo down the press cars.

But traveling by train does allow many closer-than-usual connections with voters.

All along the route, clumps of people come out to wave and cheer. Their signs range from "God Bless Texas" to the critical "Union-busters and racists for Bush."

A man sitting in a lawn chair in his backyard stands up, scratches his bare belly, and waves enthusiastically.

A driver in a car that's stopped at a rail-crossing holds his arm out the window with a thumbs-down salute.

When a clump becomes a crowd, the train slows to a crawl - and Bush appears on the back to wave.

And then there are the rallies.

It's 8:21 p.m. - and the troubles of modern-day connection-making are bubbling up fast.

A crowd of several thousand has been waiting in Akron, Ohio, for five hours to see Bush.

Just before he comes out, the media arrive, and set up TV cameras in the designated spot - right in front of much of the crowd. "Hey, down in front," yells one woman. "We've been here a long time," yells another.

With trouble brewing - and the potential for voters to grumble about their visit - campaign chairman Don Evans swings into action. This is a man who has raised millions of dollars for the Bush juggernaut. But at the moment, he's pure gopher.

He takes people's cameras around to a better spot - where only he has access - to snap pictures. "I did what I could," he says later.

When Truman did his whistle-stop campaign, the media wasn't so burly. The train didn't have a flat-bed car carrying a satellite TV truck, for instance, so networks could beam live pictures. Cameras didn't get in the way of crowds.

But still, the lessons of 1948 apply, says Truman biographer David McCullough. The key to making connections is to "be yourself, enjoy yourself, and enjoy being in direct contact with the people."

And if direct contact isn't possible, then perhaps having an alert chairman is even more key.

"Thank you," said one woman, as Mr. Evans handed back her Olympus. "At least my camera saw him."

It's 9:39 a.m. At the first rally of the second day, in Pontiac, Mich., a corporate speechwriter named Craig Jolly tells how one connection - even though via TV - sealed his choice.

Mr. Jolly tends to vote Republican. But he supports abortion rights and doesn't like school vouchers, putting him at odds with Bush. In 1996 he couldn't bring himself to vote for Dole.

But recently he saw Bush on the cable channel C-SPAN. After the speech, the cameras followed Bush while he worked the crowd. "He seemed like a really nice guy. He treated people well," says Jolly, adding, "I like that he stubbed his toe in the Texas oilfields - and that he married a woman from a modest background."

This virtual connection sealed Jolly's vote - a concept likely not lost on the Bush campaign as they seek to show Bush connecting with voters from his populist platform at the back of a train.

It's 12:07 p.m. - and as the train idles next to a historic brick station in the tiny town of Durand, Mich. - Bush exhorts UAW workers, teachers, and other working-class people to "join our crusade."

"We want to restore honor and dignity to the highest office in the land," he says to big cheers.

This is just the right pitch, says independent pollster John Zogby. He explains that on four of the top five voter issues, Bush is running even with Mr. Gore.

But on the fifth - those who say the breakdown of family values is most important - Bush leads 68 percent to 24 percent.

This group includes many in the $25,000 to $50,000 income group - one that since 1972 no president has ever won without. He says they must be targeted on both economic and moral issues.

For Pat Bakaitis, a teacher - and registered Democrat - who came to see Bush at a rally in Schoolcraft, Mich., seeing him live is crucial to making up her mind.

"You can get a real sense of him this way," she says, citing character as key. When she sees he's coming her way, she says excitedly, "Oooh, maybe I'll get to shake his hand."

Perhaps another connection made.

Perhaps another vote.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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