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 Saturday, 2 November, 2002, 16:07 GMT
Making his mark
Bush, surrounded by Secret Service agents, meets supporters in New Mexico
A president's visit is a major crowd-puller

I have just spent a few days on the campaign trail with President Bush.

The captain who had flown our chartered press plane into Hicksville, Alabama, was saying goodbye as we got off.

Bush poses for a photograph with baby while campaigning in New Hampshire
Bush seems to have the ability to connect with the US people
Hearing my accent, he addressed me as you would address a child on his way to Disneyland:

"What an experience for you, getting to travel with the president of the USA," he said.

Er, thanks a lot. But the captain was quite right - travelling with the White House is a unique experience.

Majestic is the only way to describe it. Majestic in a way that has probably not been matched since the court of French King Louis XIV.

The arrival of a president in one of the corners of his empire is a big, big event, a crowd puller.

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The advance party has secured airports, routes, buildings, press centres and the motorcade with its mobile hospital is in place.

Air space is closed and the "big bird", Air Force One, swoops into town.

The president emerges with, surprise surprise, a local Republican candidate.

You know, and I know, that Joe Bloggs got on at the last stop and will have had two minutes face-to-face time with the head man, probably these two minutes on the aircraft steps, but, hey, that is more than most of us get.

The local press swoon. The majesty has rubbed off. The pictures tell a story of a local man or woman in touch with the top.

Connecting with the people

I watched these events repeated again and again on my trip with the president, and frankly I went prepared to laugh at the pre-packaged silliness of it all.

Bush's set piece campaign speech is surprisingly adroit

But I came away strangely impressed. Impressed not just by the single-mindedness of the White House machine, but with George W Bush's enthusiasm for the campaigning lark, and his ability to connect with the people of this nation.

Mr Bush is often written up in Europe as a nitwit, a man whose grasp of language is tenuous and whose ability to think is limited.

This, certainly, can be the impression, particularly in stiff, formal settings where he is being asked treacherous questions about international diplomacy.

But when he's at home, he's good. His set-piece stump speech, the one he has memorised and honed over the last few months, is surprisingly adroit.

Leaning comfortably on the lectern, he says Americans sometimes ask him how to make their nation safer and stronger in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

"Love your neighbour," he tells them.

"Put your arm around someone today and ask them how can I make your day?

"A million small acts of kindness will make America stronger," he adds.

'Crowd-pleasing triumphalism'

Well, all right, it is not original. Perhaps a touch sentimental, and Jesus┐ sermon on the mount was better written.

The gauche, nervous, slightly aggressive and occasionally unintelligible president of the set piece encounters is gone

However I have listened to hundreds of politicians' stump speeches and President Bush's is, frankly, one of the best.

The section of the speech devoted to the war on terror is particularly restrained, given the temptation for crowd-pleasing triumphalism.

"Tell your children we didn't seek this fight," he implores his audience.

"Tell them America loves peace. But we face an enemy that hates us," he adds, before he promises: "We will hunt them down one by one."

The one-by-one line is particularly clever.

It contains a hint of progress being made, Mr Bush sometimes mentions the name of a recent al-Qaeda captive and notes that "he won't be troubling us any more", but it guards against expectations that this war can be won quickly.

It is both hopeful and sobering, a difficult balance for the most skilled speaker to achieve, but Mr Bush manages it with ease.

The speech connects with his core supporters, but it goes much further too. It is not overtly party political, it speaks to millions of Americans of both parties and none.

And if the content is good, the delivery, too, is a surprise.

Slick operator

The gauche, nervous, slightly aggressive and occasionally unintelligible president of the set piece encounters is gone.

Bush greeting supporters in New Mexico
The often derided US president may finally be making his mark

Replacing him is a man comfortable in his own skin, smiling easily, pausing in the right places, changing speed, changing cadence.

My point is that the president is not a buffoon. He is, in fact, a slick operator.

To the immense frustration of the Democrats, the president is criss-crossing the country, impressing his own supporters and, perhaps, convincing enough of his natural opponents to win his party a victory in this week's elections.

It looks possible, at least, that the Republicans will buck the normal trend and increase their support midway through a presidency controlled by their party, perhaps ending up with majorities in both houses of Congress.

Of course, the fact that the nation is at war is not a hindrance to the Republicans, they tend to be seen as more competent in military matters, but it certainly is not enough to explain the prospect of this victory.

The president, that same president so many Europeans laugh at and regard as a political aberration, is making his mark.

Key races




See also:

02 Nov 02 | Americas
14 Oct 02 | Americas
06 Mar 02 | Americas
02 Nov 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
02 Nov 02 | Americas
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