During a campaign forum in the Cleveland suburbs last month, President Bush was asked whether he likes broccoli, to disclose his "most important legacy to the American people" and to reveal what supporters can do "to make sure that you win Ohio and get reelected."
The "Ask President Bush" forums, which on television look like freewheeling sessions with the commander in chief, are tightly managed by the Bush-Cheney campaign, with the president calling mainly on people sitting in sections filled with his most loyal supporters. At one such event, a veteran's question was whether Bush would permit him "the honor of giving our commander in chief a real Navy salute, and not a flip-flop."
Several Bush advisers said the president may well pay a price for his decision to remain isolated from tough or unexpected questions when he faces Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whose events are notably less scripted, in a town-hall-style debate tonight at Washington University in St. Louis. The questions are likely to be tougher than those he faced when he taped an interview about parenting for the "Dr. Phil" show this summer.
The debates, which will conclude Wednesday in Arizona, have brought new scrutiny to Bush by tens of millions of people who are accustomed to seeing him only in brief clips or formal settings. Bush received poor ratings in polls after television shots from the first debate showed him fidgeting and grimacing under challenges by Kerry, and his remarks became repetitious and at times peevish.
Wayne Fields, a specialist in presidential rhetoric at Washington University, said the first debate showed Bush had been overprotected. "If you don't talk to the press and deal with audiences with some degree of skepticism, you can't build understanding so people have confidence in you in hard times," Fields said. "His handlers think they're doing him a favor, but they're not."
Bush has granted three interviews in the past five weeks, to conservative Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader and WMUR-TV in New Hampshire. Several national news organizations were being considered for interviews after the Republican National Convention, but the interviews did not occur after Bush took a temporary lead over Kerry in polls. Other interviews are still being considered, his staff said.
The president has stopped taking questions from the small pool of reporters who cover his photo opportunities, and he has answered questions from the White House press corps twice since Aug. 23, both times with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi at his side. His last prime-time news conference was April 13.
The tradition of the White House news corps shouting questions at the president has largely faded during this term because Bush reacts testily and does not answer, and his staff typically sets up events so he does not have to walk near reporters.
Tonight's town-hall audience of about 100 will ask 15 to 20 questions and will consist of an equal number of voters who say they lean toward Bush or Kerry but could change their minds, plus a few who say they are undecided. Bush's debate negotiators had sought to eliminate the event from the debate schedule because they were concerned that partisans could pose as uncommitted voters and slip in with tough or argumentative questions.
Although all presidents are kept somewhat removed from reality because of security concerns and their staffs' impulse for burnishing their image, Bush's campaign has taken unprecedented steps to shield him from dissenters and even from curious, undecided voters. On the way to the forum outside Cleveland, the media buses that went ahead of Bush were temporarily marooned in a church parking lot because police had been told to divert all buses since they could contain demonstrators.
Bush's handlers have pulled the presidential bubble especially tight during the campaign, but he often has kept his distance from the public and the media throughout his term. He rarely plays tourist on trips, and has held the fewest solo news conferences of any president since records were kept.
Bush has held 15 solo news conferences since taking office. At the same point in their presidencies, according to research by Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University in Maryland, Bill Clinton had held 42; George H.W. Bush, 83; Ronald Reagan, 26; Jimmy Carter, 59; Gerald R. Ford, 39; Richard M. Nixon, 29; Lyndon B. Johnson, 88; John F. Kennedy, 65; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, 94.
When reporters asked in mid-September about a chance to question the president about his National Guard records, White House press secretary Scott McClellan replied that Bush "takes questions on a regular basis," adding, "We always take your concerns under consideration."
Mike McCurry, who was Clinton's press secretary and is a senior adviser to Kerry, said Bush was hurt in the first debate because his aides do not appear to recognize the benefits of having reporters "regularly ask the hard questions that are on the mind of the public."
"They have been very effective and disciplined at managing a message and getting through," McCurry said. "Until now, they have not paid any real price in their press coverage. They have mostly been getting out of the news every day what they wanted to."
Bush used to frequently talk to small groups of local reporters as his campaign bus rolled through their state, although such roundtables have tailed off.
For the extraordinary state of Ohio, Bush made an extraordinary effort. On Sept. 1, two executives and a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch were ushered up the front steps of Air Force One -- a treatment unheard of for journalists.
The White House suggested the venue after the newspaper asked Bush to meet with its editorial board. The front-page headline that emerged from the 45-minute interview was a quote from the president: "The Country's Getting Better."