STUMPING WITH BUSH. I drove up to Stratham, New Hampshire, on Friday to watch George W. Bush address the faithful at an outdoor rally and picnic. It had been four years - since the South Carolina primary, in 2000 - that I'd had a chance to see Bush in such a setting, and I'd forgotten how effective he can be. Not to mention how out of touch with reality.
The Portsmouth Herald says there were 5500 people attending, which seems a bit high. I watched from the TV riser next to Jorge Quiroga, of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), who estimated the crowd at about 2500. That seems more like it. But there's no question that a lot of Bush supporters (non-supporters not allowed) turned out at Stella and Douglas Scamman's farm. Indeed, I had to park at a supermarket and walk about a mile up the road.
For a half-hour or more, band music was blasted through the PA system, including a number that I only know as the theme from Monty Python. Finally, at about 1 p.m., a few minutes late, we could see that Bush was slowly making his way to the podium. He was introduced by Senator Judd Gregg, who's up for re-election. Gregg immediately invoked 9/11, speaking reverently of the moment when Bush took a bullhorn amid the rubble of the World Trade Center and vowed revenge. Bush, Gregg said, offers "leadership with resolve and purpose to defeat terrorism, to defend America, and to assert leadership around the world."
Dressed in a light blue shirt, tieless and with rolled-up sleeves, Bush then grabbed the podium and talked for 45 minutes - a stemwinder for him, and curious given the amount of criticism John Kerry has received for speaking only a few minutes longer than that in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Of course, Bush had a captive audience, and didn't have to worry about anyone changing the channel.
"Listen, there is no better way to spend a Friday afternoon than at a picnic in New Hampshire," Bush said. "We won New Hampshire last time, we're going to win New Hampshire this time, and we're on our way to a great victory in New Hampshire."
What followed was all boilerplate, as he spoke partly from notes and partly from memory. He talked about his family (he was on his way to Kennebunkport for a family wedding). He paid tribute to New Hampshire Republicans such as Gregg ("an amazing senator"), Senator John Sununu, Governor Craig Benson, and Congressman Jeb Bradley. He was folksy. "You might remember I was knockin' on doors here a while ago. Like four years ago. And I met a lot of good folks here," he said, conveniently omitting the fact that most of those good folks voted for his rival, Senator John McCain.
Bush's spin on terrorism, Iraq, the economy, Dick Cheney ("I didn't pick him for his looks"), education reform, and the like is not worth repeating, although it bears noting that he appears ready to keep hacking at Kerry for his choice of North Carolina senator John Edwards - a trial lawyer - as his running mate. "We need to get rid of these frivolous and junk lawsuits," he said. "My opponent made his choice, and he put him on the ticket. I made my choice - I'm standin' with the docs and the patients."
Bush did not mention this frivolous lawsuit, which he brought against a rental-car company in 1998. No doubt if he'd hired Edwards he could have done a lot better than $2500.
When Bush is relaxed and in front of a friendly crowd, he comes across as looser and more human than Kerry seems to be able to manage. There are little touches. ("I want to thank the youth football coaches who are here today ... thanks for being good moms and dads") There are deftly worded attacks, such as his mocking criticism of Kerry for voting against $87 billion to support US troops and to reconstruct Afghanistan and Iraq. ("There's nothing complicated about supporting our troops in harm's way," he said, never mentioning that he, in fact, had threatened to veto the $87 billion if it weren't structured to his satisfaction.) There is the almost-undetectable, coded attack on lesbians and gay men. ("We stand for institutions like marriage and family, which are the foundation of our society.") There is the unadulterated horseshit, such as his call to "rally the armies of compassion," which surely are needed more than ever after four years of him and Cheney.
More than anything, there is 9/11, which is clearly the theme of his re-election campaign, and which will be on full display at the Republican National Convention in a few weeks. He ended as Judd Gregg had begun, talking about that day at Ground Zero. "I remember a guy grabbing me by the arm ... he looked at me with bloodshot eyes and said, 'Don't let me down,'" Bush said, adding: "I will do whatever it takes."
"Four more years! Four more years!" came the response from the crowd.
Will this work? I don't know. Can well-performed schmaltz overcome four years of failure and deceit? The Republicans have this down to a science. On the other hand, they reached their high-water mark in presidential campaigns in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was re-elected. The last time they won a majority was in '88, when Bush's father defeated Michael Dukakis.
This shouldn't work, but it might give Bush a temporary push heading into the fall. I'm hardly original in saying this, but I think it's pretty obvious that it's all going to come down to the debates. One thing Democrats need to keep in mind, though, is that Bush - frequently derided for his tongue-tangled ways - can be a more effective communicator than they think.