Dubya takes his show on the road

Forget the hot, dusty weeks relaxing at his Texas ranch. President Bush, still down in the polls and grappling with grave matters on the world stage, is breaking his summer routine this election year to travel the country and boost the standing of his presidency and the Republican Party.

With Republicans nervous about keeping control of Congress and worries about the future of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, White House officials have decided too much is at stake this year for Bush to spend so much time on vacation. He’ll spend some time at the ranch, but it will be less than previous summers and interrupted by more time on the road.

Since he’s been president, Bush has spent the better part of every August largely out of sight on his ranch. It hurt him most last summer, when anti-war activists camped outside his property and drew attention to the mounting deaths in Iraq. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, forcing him to end his vacation several days early.

This year, Bush’s travel among the people is designed to show that he’s a likable guy and remind Americans why they elected him. The White House is gambling that more exposure to the president in local media _ where the coverage tends to be softer _ will offset the harsh realities of a slowdown in the economy and trouble in Iraq.

Bush was starting his road show Thursday with a two-day trip to Chicago, where he planned to listen to the concerns of local leaders over dinner and then stand for an hour of questioning from the national and local media in a unique heartland news conference.

The overnight trip is a departure for the president who travels extensively across the country but is known for his quick fly-in, drive-by visits. White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the Chicago trip will be the first of several this summer where Bush will spend significant time in a community and “really sink his teeth into the local market.”

“There are a lot of things that are important to this president and often times when you fly into a community, you’re in and out within 55 minutes and you talk about one subject,” Bartlett said. “This gives him an opportunity to cover a broader range of subjects in the local community.”

The president’s approval numbers have been slowly rebounding from an all-time low this spring, and another summer out of the public eye could risk a reversal. If Democrats win control of either the House or Senate this November, a lame-duck Bush would face even more resistance to his agenda during his last two years in office.

Bush has been making more impromptu stops recently to talk to average Americans and show his folksy side. President Clinton was the master of using these meet-and-greets to get out among the people _ and get positive news coverage for it _ and Bush’s aides believe they could have the same effect for the current president.

Last week in Ohio, after an unusual day of diplomacy that featured Bush and the Japanese prime minister touring Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Tennessee, the president’s motorcade pulled over at a lemonade stand across the street from a Republican fundraiser where he helped bring in $1.3 million. Bush distributed plastic cups full of the drink prepared by excited, giggling children to the startled reporters traveling with him.

He’s also stopped unannounced to shake hands with staff and students waving to his motorcade outside an elementary school in Laredo, Texas. Then just a few minutes later, he stopped by a Mexican barbecue restaurant, where he greeted patrons in Spanish and English and ordered up a couple of plates of nachos.

And earlier this week, he visited a Dunkin’ Donuts to tout his immigration proposal with the foreign-born management over a cup of the shop’s coffee.

But it’s not just about shaking hands and slapping backs, said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Franklin said Bush has been most effective at improving his image when he shows candor about the problems the country faces and talks more in-depth about public policy.

“He’s more successful at rallying opinion when he behaves like a policy leader as president than when he appears as the nice guy George Bush that you’d want to hang out with out among the people,” Franklin said.

The president’s summer travel plans include more interaction with everyday Americans, more chances for local media to ask questions and more fundraisers. Some Republican candidates have been reluctant to appear with Bush when he’s so unpopular, but even some of those running in swing districts apparently have wagered that a day or two of taking hits for standing with the president are worth the massive amount of money he can raise for a campaign.

The president’s ambitious travel schedule “is good for me,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., who is overseeing the Republican effort to maintain control of the House. “The president is the best fundraiser that the Republican Party knows today in 2006.”

Asked whether Bush could hurt candidates in swing districts, Reynolds points out that Bush raised $840,000 for Rep. Dave Reichert, running for re-election as a centrist in his Seattle-area district.

As Bush visited, Reichert issued a statement welcoming the president’s help but pointing out that they do not agree on everything.


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