PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- He quoted country music lyrics, cited homespun Yankee wisdom and generally made himself right at home. He even shouldered a little blame for the rotten economy that has socked this state like a brutal northeaster.
But what George Bush mostly did yesterday was dish out blame to Congress, warning it to stand clear so he can lead the economic recovery with the same authority he wielded to marshal the nation's forces for the war that began a year ago today.
"When I moved those forces, I didn't have to ask Senator Kennedy or some liberal Democrat," Mr. Bush told a cheering crowd. "And I know I want to take the same leadership and solve the domestic problems and get this country moving again."
It was Day One of the campaign counterattack for Mr. Bush, as he returned to the state that gave him such vital support four years ago, when times were prosperous and a no-new-taxes promise came easy to an underdog fighting for survival.
But with that promise long since broken and with New Hampshire's economy in ruins, Mr. Bush must now answer for the perceived sins of the incumbent front-runner.
Right off the bat yesterday, he got an update on the state's economic mess, at a meeting of state business leaders and economic development officials. Businesswoman Deborah Giles mentioned a few hopeful signs in the real estate market, then cautioned against optimism by citing a current country music lyric: "There's a light at the end of the tunnel, but I hope it ain't no train."
Mr. Bush responded with his own country lyric, saying, "If you wanna see a rainbow, you've gotta stand a little rain." He then vowed to help end the "flood" of bad times.
Mr. Bush's mission to ease the state's resentment wasn't made any easier by the one Republican and five Democratic candidates who have been campaigning here during the past few months.
Their attacks have contributed to a growing bitterness against Mr. Bush, an emotion that had already been sharpened by Mr. Bush's earlier insistence that the nation was not in a recession.
Mr. Bush acknowledged he may have seemed uncaring at the time, but he said he didn't lack compassion. "Maybe I haven't conveyed it as well as I should," he said. "I don't know what I have to do to convince people here that I really care. . . . This state has gone through hell."
But there was little evidence of the state's anger or frustration in the crowds that greeted the president yesterday. That was at least partly thanks to his campaign's careful scheduling.
Three stops were at invitation-only events, including a town meeting in Exeter that had all the appearance of a spontaneous gathering.
Three other stops were at companies that have weathered the bad economy with relative ease. Although one has experienced furloughs and another has offered early retirement incentives, the third has enjoyed a year of record profits.
The crowds at each were well-behaved and deferential. And at the Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.'s offices in Dover, employees said they were told by management not to speak with reporters.
The result was a series of well-received speeches and a few amicable question-and-answer sessions, though one man in Exeter who identified himself as a Democrat (apparently having slipped through campaign screening, a campaign official said) asked a question challenging Mr. Bush's assertion that he is "the education president."
Otherwise, Mr. Bush escaped any uncomfortable moments, and he was able to avoid any confrontations with the jobless and the people without health insurance that he said he'd come to help.
The closest that any of those folks came to registering a protest was by standing alongside the route of the presidential motorcade and waving signs.
One such sign said, "I need a job. Any ideas, Mr. President?"
As if to answer that question, Mr. Bush said at each stop that, yes, he has many ideas, and has had them for some time, only to see Congress fail to act.
When he delivers the State of the Union address Jan. 28, he said, he will offer a new batch, including tax credits for investments, an individual retirement account that will favor first-time home buyers, a new push for a cut in taxes on capital gains, and a program for health insurance that will cover uninsured Americans but not "increase the federal mandate."
Mr. Bush's criticisms of Congress invariably led him to state at each stop his wish that he could fight the war for a better economy with the same absolute powers he has as military commander-in-chief.
And at each such reference to the war, Mr. Bush took the occasion to tout his accomplishments in leading the nation to victory over Iraq. He cited the resulting national pride, saying, "The country came together," and he scorned the "revisionists" who now say the victory was incomplete.
Mr. Bush capped his day with a Rotary Club speech last night at Portsmouth, in which he warned against heeding "the siren's call" of protectionism "from the extreme right and the extreme left," a clear reference to his Republican opponent in the Feb. 18 primary, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who is running against Mr. Bush on an "America First" platform.
Without mentioning Mr. Buchanan by name, Mr. Bush compared his philosophy to the isolationism of the 1930s.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see what that led to," said Mr. Bush, who warned that protectionism could lead to loss of tens of thousands of export-related jobs in New Hampshire alone.