Bush hoping a late train will get him there on time



BURLINGTON, WIS — BURLINGTON, Wis. -- As President Bush resumes his Harry S. Truman dream of an upset with another Trumanesque whistle-stop train tour today, this time through rural Wisconsin, he continues to pursue an electoral-vote strategy that gives him virtually no margin for error.

The decision to devote a full day, the third from the end of the campaign, to a state with only 11 electoral votes underscores his abandoned hopes in many larger states -- and his long-shot objective of patching together a quilt of smaller ones to barely reach the magic number of 270.

With California (54 electoral votes), New York (33) and Illinois (22) all conceded to Bill Clinton, the president must play patchwork politics. He not only must battle Clinton in Texas (32), Florida (25), Pennsylvania (23), Ohio (21), Michigan (18) and New Jersey in all of which Bush is trailing or in a tight race, but he also must pick up a slew of smaller states as well.

That is why his schedule made a late-hour adjustment to campaign in Democratic vice-presidential nominee Al Gore's home state of Tennessee (11) yesterday before going on to Missouri (11) and into Wisconsin. It is a desperate effort to nickel and dime his way to re-election, assuming that he holds on in Texas and Florida, where he was favored originally, and gets an even break in the four industrial-belt states mentioned above.

Although much attention is focused on where the candidates go on this final weekend of a long, grueling campaign, in the television era what is done may be just as important. And when it comes to colorful campaign events guaranteed to draw heavy television and print coverage, both nationally and locally, it is hard to beat a whistle-stop train trip.

In a previous train tour in Ohio, the Bush campaign drew press criticism because the route was entirely through traditionally strong Republican country in late September, when the president should have long since secured his own party base so that he could be reaching out for Democrats and independents.

But on this final weekend, both Bush and Clinton will get saturation coverage on the networks and in the nation's newspapers no matter where they go. And crowd enthusiasm is deemed important to help convey the image of "momentum," that much-used but elusive commodity that campaign strategists hope will convince fence-sitting voters to back their man. There still is nothing in politics more certain to get voters out than a whistle-stop train, invoking nostalgia of earlier days of candidates going directly to the people.

The Bush campaign obviously is putting much stock in the effectiveness of a train trip so very late in the campaign. No passenger train service runs along the route Bush is taking through Wisconsin, requiring the use of tracks employed to haul freight and the acquisition of passenger cars from elsewhere on the rail system -- all at considerable expense to the campaign.

In all this, the critical ingredient is an upbeat and enthusiastic candidate, and in Bush the Republican ticket has a veteran who appears to have pumped himself up for this one final push. He refuses to entertain the possibility of losing and exhorts crowds of well-wishers to adopt the same attitude. But it is clear that among many party leaders along the way and even in his own entourage there is much more hope than conviction that he can win.

The recent flood of stories, based on national polls of the popular vote, suggesting a "surge" of Bush support has helped Bush in his pitch for optimism. He himself, though, tells crowds that after knocking the polls for so long, he is hardly in a position to brag about them now.

Hovering over such polls is the hard arithmetic of the Electoral-College vote, decided not by any national popular accounting but state by state. There, Bush continues to trail by double digits in many of the largest states, dictating the strategy of trying to compensate by winning a host of the smaller electoral-vote prizes, such as Tennessee, Missouri and Wisconsin, and even smaller states such as Montana.

Four years ago, Democratic Michael S. Dukakis experienced a similar 11th-hour "surge" in the national polls but in the end wound up getting snowed under in the Electoral College. For all his current enthusiasm, Bush is spooked by the same possibility as he grittily rides the Wisconsin rails, hoping that he is following the route of the man from Independence, Mo., in 1948, not the one from Brookline, Mass., in 1988.

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