On the road, a different Bush


Campaign: Across America, a more relaxed candidate charms voters, eats raw corn and lets malapropisms flow.

September 08, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. - President Bush was rolling along just fine in his speech.

"We've got an issue in America: Too many good docs are getting out of business."

But when he referred to obstetrician-gynecologists and their troubles, things got, well, interesting.

"Too many ob/gyns," Bush explained, "aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."

Bush was evidently speaking of "love" to underscore how much these specialists enjoy their vocation. But with his word choice, the president injected a provocative element into a standard stump speech here this week.

Welcome to the unpredictable road show known as Bush traveling the country. Many Americans see him in prime-time appearances, such as his Republican convention speech in New York - in a suit, polished, reading from a teleprompter that limits his verbal excursions.

But most, especially those outside the campaign battleground states that the president visits exclusively nowadays, miss the Bush who lands in town squares, basketball arenas and school gyms in search of votes.

He can be punchy, looking for a laugh and so relaxed that his antics can enter the realm of the inexplicable. He has champed on raw corn, described which parts of a broccoli leaf taste best, played peek-a-boo with photographers and told mayors to fill potholes.

On the road, Bush lets any malapropisms or gaffes just flow out. This is Dubya unplugged, Dubya unworried.

After all, many of his supporters adore Bush for his average-guy charm. So, in a way, his unpretentious oddities can be a strength. Critics and late-night talk-show hosts have spent four years ridiculing Bushisms, and yet there's no evidence that Bush has been harmed politically.

Last week, Bush was finishing a long bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, when he attacked his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, over Iraq in a speech in Erie, Pa.

He was launching into a well-worn line about how Kerry voted no when Bush asked Congress to provide the troops with "body armor and spare parts." But in Erie, Bush melded the two. He recalled asking lawmakers if they could buy "armor and body parts." And, he said, he was furious that Kerry had refused to fund those items.

Some events just lend themselves to entertainment. The campaign frequently organizes "Ask President Bush" sessions, in which the president informally holds court on a stage with a stool and microphone, surrounded by people. He singles out preselected audience members to raise issues the campaign wants to have raised and freely acknowledges that the participants are mostly human props.

"One of the interesting ways that I try to make points is to have others make them for me," Bush said at a recent freewheeling event in Nashua, N.H. "Alison Brackett is with us today. She runs a program called Bridges of Learning."

In these settings, the president could aptly be described as a cross between rambling talk-show host and traveling salesman. He speaks quickly and is ever eager.

"She's here because she is a social entrepreneur," Bush said. "Tell us what you did."

"We are a organization that collects and then distributes school materials, supplies and needs throughout the world," Brackett said.

Bush: "Right, OK, isn't that amazing? Think about this. And so when did you start? Who told you to start this?"

Brackett said the idea came from her kids.

"So, it wasn't a government program?" Bush said, sensing his point was being made and growing more excited. "The president didn't say, `Start this.' The governor didn't say, `We're going to pass a resolution in the New Hampshire House for you to do it.' She heard a call. And so what do you do? I know you distribute school supplies. Give us a little - some details."

Later in Nashua, Bush praised an audience member, Christine Burritt, for not disclosing any military secrets in speaking about her son's service in Iraq.

"He's stationed 40 miles north of Baghdad," Burritt said.

"Right," said her presidential host.

"And they do convoy missions," Burritt said. "Security and other missions as defined ... which ... he doesn't tell his mom about."

"That's good," the president said, "particularly with all these cameras looking at you."

At these events, Bush also fields random questions, which the White House insists are not screened. But the room is full of supporters. And the questions, if you can call them that, are not exactly unfriendly.

"I'm going to appear to be sophisticated, but I'm a wreck," one of Bush's questioners confessed in Nashua.

"That's what I try to do, too," the president replied. "I try to be sophisticated and - I have trouble pulling it off, though, you know?"

"It's an honor to be here today to meet you, Mr. President," the questioner added. "OK, and New Hampshire chicks love you. I got to say that."

"So far," Bush deadpanned, "you haven't acted very sophisticated."

One of the more memorable campaign moments came outside Davenport, Iowa, last month, when Bush and his entourage pulled over at Ken Thomsen's corn stand. The president disembarked from his car and bought a half-dozen ears.

Then Bush peeled back the husk and bit into one.

"Oh, yeah, you don't even need to cook it," he said. "It's really good."

Reporters tried to ask the president about a more sober matter - how he felt about campaigning in the same area as Kerry on the same day.

Bush just kept eating.

"We're here buying some corn," he said finally, to get reporters to stop interrupting.

The president then went over to another farm stand, where he spoke with Larry Gatlin, the country singer, who was traveling with him.

"Who'd ever have thought you could eat raw corn?" Gatlin said.

"I didn't," Bush said.

And with that, it was off to another campaign stop to try to get four more years in the White House.

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