HUDSON, Wis., Aug. 18 -- The audience gathered at Lakefront Park is small, intimate, the size of a crowd at a high school play. They've been instructed before he arrives not to be shy; this is their one chance to ask the president anything, and the president wants them to; after all, he calls this event "Ask President Bush." As they wait, it's raining one minute, sunny the next. In the background, Lake Croix, the pride of western Wisconsin, looks choppy. Hawks are circling overhead. Anything could happen.
"What do you got?" the president taunts them when the questioning session opens, and then calls on the first hand.
"Mr. President," begins a young man in a baseball hat. "I just want to say I'm praying for you and God bless you."
And then one questioner later:
"I would just like to say that I agree with this gentleman, that we should all pray for you."
Every campaign has its preferred way of cavorting with the common man, and they are always somewhat canned. John Kerry and John Edwards have their "front porch" meetings, highly staged hangouts on a suburban stoop, just the two Johns, an average American family and 200 reporters. Bush prefers the "Ask President Bush" sessions, the campaign equivalent of the infomercial, with an audience designed to look as if it's been plucked randomly off the street, delighted anew at each twist and turn of the master's demonstration, irrepressibly bursting with questions and comments.
Typical of the exchanges at Bush's town hall meetings is this one from last week in Beaverton, Ore.
"Mr. President, you were a fighter pilot and you were with the 147th Fighter Wing?"
"Yes," answers Bush.
"And flew a very dangerous aircraft, the Delta F102?"
"Right, and I'm still standing."
"I want to thank you for serving our country"
"Thank you for serving."