”Dubbya, Dubbya, Dubbya.” It was 8.30pm at a stadium on the edge of Detroit, and on the giant central podium an increasingly pink-cheeked Candice Miller, a Republican congresswoman, was doing her best to warm up the crowd. It was not easy going. The thermometer was plunging towards an unseasonable zero. That oldest of campaign cliches – “this is the most important election of our lifetime” – sank without trace, as did an oratorical firecracker lobbed at George W Bush’s rival, Senator John Kerry.
Then the giant screen behind the stage lit up and an aerial shot of a red, white and blue bus cruising along a highway came into view. Moments later, Dubbya himself swaggered on to the stage. Lights flashed. Amplifiers bellowed. His body language was as close as you will get to political sex appeal in this post-Clinton campaign.
Part rock star, part clown, part revivalist preacher, the bomber-jacketed Bush joked and cajoled for a good half-hour. He thrust out his jaw. He wiggled his hips. He grimaced. He grinned. He jested that his “behind” offered his most favourable view. And his timing? I was at the White House press conference during the famous “stumble”, when the president dithered after being asked what was his greatest mistake since the 11 September attacks. But on the road, he is a very different man, particularly on the subject of Kerry.
“I’m running against . . .” he said, after an opening “brownies and apple pie” eulogy to the First Lady, “I’m running against an experienced United States senator.” He paused, as if at a pantomime to allow for a loud “Boo!”. “He’s been in Washington for quite a long time. He’s been there long enough to take both sides of just about every issue . . . He’s been on both sides of big issues. And if he could find a third side . . .” He paused again for laughter and applause.
It is an old and, you may say, cheap gag. And it is far easier to win laughs when you are mocking your rival on friendly turf than it is when defending a controversial war against the White House press corps.
But this is why Bush might do well to spend more time on the road if he wants to save his job. It is not just that he feels more comfortable in small-town America than in DC. It is also that his “cheeky chappie” image could, in November, as in 2000 against Al Gore, help turn the tide. Even Kerry’s staff concede that Kerry is not a man for quick laughs.
With his approval rating at 41 per cent, Bush is deep in “trouble territory”. But his allies take comfort in the polls that suggest it was only Beltway and foreign sceptics who shuddered at his press conference “gaffe”. In the “heartland”, viewers may be more inclined to see a president under fire from too-clever-by-half townies. And whatever you think of him, if you see him on the trail, you have to accept that he knows how to “connect”.
Twelve hours after the Detroit rally, Bush was flipping pancakes in Lucas County, Ohio, an economically depressed swing county in another swing state. Once again, he peppered his speech with words such as “heck” and “buster”. He also had a new attack on Kerry, ridiculing him for having claimed the support of foreign leaders. “He just won’t give us the names. [Pause for laughter] He did drop a hint the other day. He said, ‘What I said is true . . . you can go to New York City, and you can be in a restaurant, and you can meet a foreign leader.’ [Pause] I got a hunch this whole thing might be a case of mistaken identity.” His audience filed away overjoyed, determined to get out every last vote.
Bush was soon heading south again, spraying earthy one-liners – “I got a little windy in Toledo,” he said to guffaws in Dayton, as he explained why he was late – riffs about his rival, and talk of optimism, compassion and God.
Roughly 400 miles away, his administration was engulfed in the gravest crisis of his tenure. The Detroit and Ohio tour merited short inside stories in the national press. Yet it dominated the local news. And his staff hope that just may be what counts.
Alec Russell is head of the Daily Telegraph‘s Washington bureau