Bush relishes `sprint' to finish


November 04, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

JOPLIN, Mo. -- He's bounding around stages with his sleeves rolled up, beaming and chuckling at adoring crowds, pumped up by rock music.

With control of Congress and his own influence on the line, President Bush is on a 15-stop tour that has the feel of a personal crusade, his last chance before leaving office to prove that he has been underestimated.

"I'm sprinting to the finish line," Bush told a raucous crowd in a Missouri university gymnasium yesterday, appearing with Sen. Jim Talent, one of his party's most vulnerable incumbents.

Bush's days on the national ballot are done, but his policies and reputation are driving '06 contests, and the outcome will determine how much he can accomplish in the last two years of his presidency.

So he is blitzing once-safe Republican areas and battleground states in hopes of boosting turnout and combating disillusionment among his supporters. He's choosing conservative strongholds like this one, a rural county where he won more than 70 percent of the vote in 2004, for maxiumum impact.

Yesterday's audience roared and waved red, white and blue streamers, interrupting Bush's remarks with a well-rehearsed chant of "Welcome! To! Missouri! George! W.! Bush!"

Earlier, down the road in Springfield, Mo., Bush bounded onstage to the theme from Rocky III and revved up the crowd by declaring, "In Washington, D.C., the pundits have already decided who's going to win."

The audience booed obligingly.

"They forgot the people of Missouri hadn't voted yet," Bush said, comparing this campaign to that of 2004, when, he said, pundits forecast his defeat.

Small towns

The stops, reminiscent of Bush's campaigns, are designed to rekindle the energy and excitement of a presidential bid, blanketing the small towns he hits with bursts of breathless media coverage and days of buzz for Republican candidates.

Bush, who campaigned in Iowa after his two Missouri stops, is scheduled to appear today in Colorado. He is to stop in Nebraska and Kansas tomorrow in an effort to boost Republican candidates once considered shoo-ins but now showing signs of vulnerability. He then plans to visit Florida, Arkansas and Texas on Monday.

Bush is staying out of swing states, particularly in the Northeast, where Republican candidates need to appeal to more moderate voters to win.

First lady Laura Bush, who is more popular with a broader spectrum of voters, has picked up the slack with a schedule of campaign rallies that has outpaced her husband's.

Democrats happy

Republicans say the visits help their candidates, but Democrats are also happy to have the president in town for what they say is a reminder of his unpopular policies.

"It helps fire up the troops," said Ken Mehlman, the national Republican chairman, who is touring swing counties and Republican bastions to press activists into phone-calling and door-knocking service.

Bush "loves being out there. It helps turn out and persuade," Mehlman said.

The president had his Missouri audience on its feet, chanting a derisive "What's your plan?" to the Democrats as Bush engaged in a call-and-response that accused his opponents of jeering from the sidelines without offering a substantive alternative.

His message to supporters is that Democrats "may not be admitting it on the campaign trail, but they're going to raise your taxes."

Given their stances on his counterterrorism policies, Bush said, Democrats "must not think there's an enemy that wants to hit us again."

Democrats responded in kind, stepping up their criticism of Bush's national security policies. Howard Dean, the national party chairman, said in a news release that Bush's "`stay the course' rhetoric is not only bad for America but has been a drag on Republicans on the ballot who have rubber-stamped the White House's failed agenda."

"You simply can't trust Republicans to keep us safe," Dean said. "The American people are fed up and want to change course."

Presidential historian George C. Edwards III said Bush's last midterm campaign differs from those of some of his predecessors, whose stump appearances were more like victory laps.

Bush has more at stake going into Tuesday's vote, and his low standing in the polls limits his reach, Edwards said.

"He has to preach to the choir; that's the only thing he can do. And it's a bit of a desperation move," said Edwards of Texas A&M University. "When you're such a polarizing figure, you're not likely to do well with independents. The best they can hope for that he can do is rally the faithful."

White House strategists think that is the key in Missouri and a handful of other states where polls show Republicans in tight contests.

A senior administration official said this week that Missouri and Montana, where Bush appeared Thursday with endangered Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, "are the two [places] where we believe the president can have the biggest impact on turnout."

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