Buses, baseball, and encounters with Bush

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

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.

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.")

Yet as he goes from one town square to the next, standing before picturesque clock towers and steamboats, Kerry seems genuinely to be relishing it all. At nearly every stop, he enthusiastically ends his stump speech with not one, but a string of pep-talk proverbs, building to a crescendo, as if he can't contain himself: "America's best days are ahead of us," "The sun will be rising," "The future is unlimited," "Tomorrow will be better than today!"

He gamely tells the same jokes over and over, drawing eye-rolling chuckles - such as when he tells the crowd that he and Edwards have a lot in common: "His name is John; my name is John. He has two beautiful daughters; I have two beautiful daughters. He was named People Magazine's Sexiest Politician Alive; I read People Magazine."

He even enthusiastically joins in a softball game in Taylor, Mich., between firefighters and local auto workers, despite hordes of reporters standing ready to record any strikeout or booted grounder. (In fact, Kerry has two hits in his two appearances at bat, and records three outs while playing second base.)

By some measurements, Kerry has reason to be feeling good. Surveys since the convention show he made significant strides on several key fronts, moving ahead of Bush in a Gallup Poll on whom voters trust more to be commander in chief, and who they believe will better protect the US from terrorist attacks. At the same time, a Newsweek survey found voters now see Kerry as more likable than Bush. "We're doing spectacularly," he tells an Iowa TV reporter shortly after he and President Bush held near-simultaneous events in Davenport. "The crowds have been phenomenal."

Still, he acknowledges, "There aren't that many undecided. So there isn't that much room for ... change."

Kerry's goal on this cross-country trip is to solidify and somehow expand his lead, by reaching out to independents and Republicans. Many of the rallies have been in GOP-dominated areas like Harrisburg, Pa., where Kerry drew a surprisingly large crowd of 20,000 in front of the state capitol. But the incursions into enemy territory also draw the inevitable protesters, who hold signs such as "Pro-life for a hamster but not for a baby," and, as he departs on the ferry: "Bush will sink Kerry."

In many ways, the tour's apple-pie, throwback feel fits with the image Kerry's trying to project: of a responsible, Eisenhower-like leader who would have a better approach to the war on terror and Iraq, while providing help to the middle class and restoring fiscal discipline at home. His stump speech includes a historical section on American greats who challenged the nation to think "what if," from Ben Franklin to the Wright brothers to John Kennedy.

Still, there's some evidence Kerry's references to Kennedy may be leaving too strong an impression: At one point, Ben Affleck, who spent the first few days on the tour (adding to the size of the crowds) actually referred to Kerry as "Kennedy" in an introduction, while on the Lake Michigan ferry, a woman approached to ask: "Can I get a picture, Senator Kennedy?"

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