GRAND BLANC, Mich. -- Running furiously but apparently still in place, President Bush's re-election campaign has reached a kind of all's-fair-whatever-works mentality.
The clearest indication of the president's mind-set came yesterday when Bush aides said he had seriously considered meeting today in Dallas with his on-again, off-again challenger Ross Perot to plead for his support.
Mr. Bush seemed to have decided against such a meeting by yesterday afternoon when reporters quizzed him during a whistle-stop in Holly, Mich., near the conclusion of his weekend train tour.
"I don't believe we will" meet, said Mr. Bush, who is scheduled to be in Dallas today for a long-scheduled fund-raiser. "We've got a team down there."
Delegations representing both Mr. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton, are scheduled to meet today with a gathering of state coordinators for the Perot campaign to present him their plans for reducing the federal budget deficit.
But Mr. Bush made a new pitch for Perot supporters here yesterday afternoon at the final trackside rally of his two-day whistle-stop tour.
"Mine is the only agenda that includes cutting the growth of mandatory government spending, cutting the size of government and reducing the federal deficit," he said.
Each side hopes to convince Mr. Perot and his backers that their candidate is committed to taking the major, probably painful, steps required to address what most economists believe is the underlying cause of the nation's weak economy.
They would like to secure Mr. Perot's endorsement, or at least a commitment not to return to the presidential race.
It's not clear that the Dallas billionaire, who won legions of support from disenchanted voters before dropping out of the contest in July, can be convinced. Some analysts speculate that Mr. Perot is just going through the motions of a meeting with the Bush and Clinton camps so he can announce afterward that their plans were so unsatisfactory that he must re-enter the contest.
Even so, one Bush official argued that the president should take advantage of the opportunity to "become part of the hottest story of the day."
"We've got a fantastic opportunity for him to talk about plans for reducing the deficit and get people to listen," the official said. "In a campaign like this, you've got to take advantage of every opportunity."
Mr. Bush, who spent much of the train trip hanging off the caboose platform and waving to scattered crowds, told supporters at his rally here: "You give a guy confidence."
He was greeted at each stop by thousands of people, many of them waving hand-written placards. One of the president's favorite endorsed Mr. Bush's dog, saying "Millie, not Willie."
Still, with Mr. Clinton's lead of at least 10 percentage points remaining, according to the Bush campaign's own estimates, the president is ready to try anything -- almost.
Potential Perot supporters like Luke A. Gilmore, an autoworker from Milford, Mich., who came out to hear Mr. Bush yesterday in Wixom, said he'd like to hear more honest talk about the deficit.
"If it gets us out of the hole, it's going to mean bigger and better jobs in the future," Mr. Gilmore said.
Mr. Bush said in a CBS television interview yesterday that he has no intention of changing his plan for reducing the deficit, which relies mostly on limiting increases in programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Mr. Clinton says he can reduce the deficit by 50 percent over four years, primarily through expanded economic growth and savings from health-cost controls.
On the second day of his tour through tiny, staunchly Republican towns in Ohio and Michigan -- what Mr. Bush called "the real America"-- he added to his anti-Clinton routine with fresh barbs disguised as humorous asides.
The tone was snide, the references pointed, the material reminiscent of a 1950s nightclub comedian: "Take my opponent -- please!"
"I don't want to suggest that Arkansas rivers are polluted, but you know Governor Clinton sometimes talks like he can walk on water," Mr. Bush said to a rich round of laughter in Wixom.
"Living around . . . the Arkansas River he can walk on water. . . . It's the only place the fish teach their young ones how to jog instead of swim."
It was a clear escalation from Saturday's start of the train tour, when he joked that his Democratic challenger, who admits to trying marijuana in college but not inhaling, is now getting light-headed on bus fumes.
The president also tried to turn to his advantage the repeated sightings of Clinton supporters in chicken costumes. They've turned up at his rallies since last Tuesday, when the president refused to take part in a televised debate with Mr. Clinton because he objected to the proposed format.
"There he is -- the chicken," Mr. Bush said Saturday in Bowling Green, Ohio. "I'm not sure if that chicken is from Oxford, England, or if he's the one that dumps that fecal coliform bacteria into the Arkansas River."