When George W. Bush gets on a bus Monday to head into the American heartland for a series of "Ask the President" events and even a pancake breakfast or two, he will be making a deliberate statement to voters: I am not an imperial president.
Unlike all his fundraising trips around the country over the past many months, aimed at intersecting with as many wealthy donors as possible, the president's bus tour seeks to generate maximum media exposure and project a regular-guy likability that his campaign believes contrasts favorably with his Democratic opponent, John Kerry.
The four states he will visit - Michigan and Ohio early in the week, followed by Wisconsin and Iowa - represent 54 electoral votes, a fraction of the 270 he will need to win in November, but any one of those four states could spell the difference between victory and defeat. He's leaving nothing to chance. He's also clearly looking over his shoulder at Senator Kerry, who went on his own bus tour around the Midwest last month, and remains in a dead heat with Bush in polls.
"Whenever he thinks the challenger is doing something that might garner a point or two, he's going to answer it, or send a surrogate to answer it for him," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin.
Bush is also making sure he doesn't repeat the mistake of his father, the first President Bush, who in 1992 appeared out of touch with the concerns of average people and failed to convince the public that the nation had pulled out of recession. "His father wasn't aggressive enough, and thus he is definitely not going to be accused of not going out and making his own case," says Professor Buchanan. Bush will also "demonstrate his concern especially for people in trouble with respect to jobs."
Ironically, the populist technique of touring by bus was perfected by the man who defeated his father: Bill Clinton. And the current President Bush comes from just as privileged a background as his father, but with a Texas overlay that makes him more comfortable with regular folks than George H. W. Bush has ever seemed.
Part of the younger Bush's agenda this week will clearly be to reinforce his support with his conservative base. By visiting cities like Kalamazoo, Mich., and Cincinnati, Ohio, both strongly conservative on hot-button social issues, he can rally supporters - and address abortion, gay marriage, and gun rights head on in a way that would be riskier later in the race.
By combining that with a message of concern and action on job losses, Bush could even stand to win moderate Republican and Democratic votes. "People do respect conviction," says Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster based in Michigan. "Carl Levin [a Democratic senator from Michigan] wins Republican votes, not because it's great to be a liberal Democrat, but because he is seen as a man of conviction."
So far, Kerry has come across as rudderless, Mr. Sarpolus notes, and Bush will try to contrast himself early on by exhibiting his trademark style of being simple, clear, and "resolute," before the Massachusetts Democrat can rev up to his patented strong finish.
Still, the main item on the agenda in all four states will be economic; thus far during Bush's presidency, more than 2 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared, many of them in those states. So even if Bush's term has been dominated by bold initiatives - see major tax cuts and the invasion of Iraq - he is unlikely to propose any more big ideas on the trail, analysts say.
Typically, by the time they're running for reelection, incumbent presidents have already laid out their principal agenda, and so the reason to reelect is to "get the job done." Bush's efforts this year at other big proposals - such as immigration reform and space missions to the moon and Mars - fell flat and now lie dormant.
In Ohio, firmly fixed in the political world's sights as the ground zero of the 2004 election, Bush will travel to Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton, and Lebanon. The central part of the state is seen as up for grabs, and every word he utters will be parsed carefully.
"Eight to 10 percent of the electorate is going to decide this election in Ohio," says Eric Rademacher, editor of the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati. "On the economy, across the state, Democrat or Republican, they want to see signs of recovery. The real question between Republicans and Democrats is whether they think the president can do the job."
But even from the outset, the thumb is on the scale for Bush, unless events in Iraq or with the economy dramatically shift perceptions against him. Americans have been reluctant through history to change presidents without a good reason.
And in recent weeks, even with tough news out of Iraq, Bush's poll numbers versus Kerry's have not dropped.