Seeing wide open spaces by bus

SUN JOURNAL

Touring: The candidates send a message that they care about a state - whichever they're in.

October 27, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

KICKAPOO, Wis. - The people of Kickapoo welcomed President Bush yesterday - for about 15 seconds.

That's how long it took the president's bus to hurtle through this little town in southwestern Wisconsin. Bush was blazing a trail from Onalaska to Richland Center, two communities that, unlike Kickapoo, had an opportunity to actually see the president get off his motor coach.

The bus tour has become a fixture on the presidential campaign trail ever since Bill Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, set off on a 1,000-mile trek into the heartland after their 1992 convention. Yesterday was Bush's 19th Bush-capade, his fifth here in the Badger State.

Sen. John Kerry has made good use of buses as well. He toured Wisconsin last week. And he traveled mostly by bus - though he sampled other modes of transportation like train and boat - when he stumped across the country, east to west, after his party's convention in July.

It's a way for candidates to demonstrate their commitment to a state. The message: I'm not just going to fly into an airport and speak in a hangar. I'm going to drive your roads, soak in the place you call home and get down with you people.

One did not have to look hard yesterday to see Bush sharing locals' pain. In Onalaska, where he began his day, the recreation hall felt like a sauna. Several people were felled by the heat and carried off by medics. A woman threw up on the floor.

Bush slogged his way through his speech with sweat glistening on his cheeks and beading on his upper lip.

"What a great way to spend a Tuesday," he told the Onalaska faithful, who made good use of their Bush-Cheney '04 signs as hand-held fans. "That's to be on a bus traveling throughout the great state of Wisconsin."

When Bush gets down to business and talks issues on bus-tour day, he adopts a folksy persona, as if he's just some regular guy stopping by on his way through town.

"Let me talk right quick about education," he said in Onalaska. "This business about just shuffling the children through, grade after grade, year after year, without learning the basics was not good enough for America, as far as I'm concerned."

A learning experience

Bus tours can teach candidates a lot. When Kerry rumbled into the first stop on his recent Wisconsin tour, he told the crowd he was thrilled to be in the land of "brat," which he rhymed with "rat." Wisconsin is indeed famous for its bratwurst, but when locals order it, they rhyme "brat" with "got." The audience yelled at the senator that he had mispronounced their delicacy. By his second stop, Kerry was speaking like he had been scarfing down "brats" all his life.

The Bush bus is really an Oval Office on wheels, with a desk for the president, as well as secure phone lines and televisions.

According to aides, he sometimes stands at the front of the bus, on the stairs that lead down to the door. Equipped with a hand-held microphone connected to speakers outside the bus, Bush greets America as it flies by. If the politics of old has presidents waving from train platforms, the modern equivalent is a bus window.

"He'll get on the microphone and talk with people on the sides: `How's everybody doing at the Pizza Hut?'" said his close adviser, Karen Hughes, who was aboard the bus yesterday. "People will come out with their pets or their families or their kids, and he'll say, `Fine looking dog you've got there.'"

Hughes said she did not recall Bush saying hello to anyone in Kickapoo yesterday, as he shot past folks gathered outside the Kickapoo Kwik Stop Liquor and Laundry, which appeared, to a reporter, to be the town's center of activity - at least through a bus window at 50 mph.

Bus tours by presidential candidates are no casual event, despite attempts by aides to create the image of a politician casually ambling across a state. The roads to be traveled are closed off for miles. Local police officials, from one town to the next, station themselves to keep bystanders from disrupting the progress of the motorcade.

Behind Bush's bus is another carrying staff, one carrying Secret Service agents, and four carrying reporters. Endless security vehicles are interspersed amid the convoy, their lights flashing away. The entourage must look from above like a big snake festooned with blinking Christmas lights slithering across empty Wisconsin roads.

There are always what aides call "unplanned" stops designed to make it seem like Bush just decided to pull over. The stops are in fact meticulously planned, and campaign officials rush photographers in, hoping to capture the perfect visual moment.

Yesterday, the road show came to John and Connie Turgasen's dairy farm outside Richland Center. Bush posed for photos with four generations of Turgasens around a picnic table.

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