Texas Gov. George W. Bush is sneaking out this morning. He's dropping in on a couple of breakfast spots entirely unannounced. He's as stealthy as a cat -- a cat in a 42-foot bus trailed by two vans full of staff members and a conga line of press cars, led by a New Hampshire state trooper cruiser.
"We're doing a couple of impromptus," Bush presidential campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer whispered last night. He hinted -- all very hush, hush -- that a reporter who happened to be at the Bush hotel by 7 a.m. might very possibly find the Republican presidential candidate on his way to press the flesh of some unsuspecting voters.
Fleischer must have whispered this to about 20 people, because the lobby of the Marriott Courtyard was packed. Half a dozen television and still photographers seemed especially eager to rush ahead to the diners and set up their shots -- but that's where the surprise came in. The campaign wouldn't give them the names of the target restaurants. Nor were the local TV stations alerted. Result: No telltale scrum loitering on the sidewalk, announcing to everyone passing by that a candidate was coming.
Let it be said that in New Hampshire during primary season, knots of photographers and reporters loitering on sidewalks are about as commonplace as donut shops. It's not entirely clear a passer-by would even notice. Still . . .
"Doing it this way lets you meet New Hampshire voters in as real a way as possible," Fleischer explains as we mill about the lobby. "The whole purpose of doing it unannounced is to avoid a crowd scene -- so you can make it as impromptu as presidential politics can be these days."
At 7:24, a staff member circulates slips of paper revealing the address of the first stop. Photographers rush to their cars like kids on a scavenger hunt. Exactly five minutes later, Bush strides through the lobby and jumps onto his chartered bus. The motorcade weaves through rush hour traffic toward Blake's, a popular breakfast joint in Goffstown.
"Popular breakfast joint" is actually redundant in New Hampshire. Breakfast is more than a meal here, something approaching a religious ritual. The state motto is "Live Free or Die," but it could just as easily be, "two eggs over medium, a short stack and the bacon, please."
"A big breakfast state," Fleischer allows.
So if you want to be president, you have to hit the diners. By the time Bush heads home to Texas at mid-day, in fact, he will have campaigned in three different restaurants: Blake's, another drop-by at the legendary West Side dive Cafe Vachon, and a meeting with police chiefs at a cafe called Anna Del's.
He is extremely comfortable with diner-style campaigning. He strides into Blake's and plops himself without hesitation between two guys on stools at the counter. "How can a guy get a cuppa coffee around here?" he says with a grin. It's totally natural -- part from the six lenses trained on his face from 18 inches away.
Just as planned, the sparse crowd at Blake's had little warning, unless they were tipped off by the appearance of several Texas Rangers some 30 minutes ahead of Bush. As governor, Bush always travels in the company of Rangers, who tend to wear cowboy boots and short hair that looks like it was parted with a T-square. They're like Secret Service guys, only not so loose and jivey. You tend to notice them.
After a few minutes at the counter, Bush springs from his stool and begins shaking hands around the room. He is a very physical hand-shaker. He pats backs, grabs biceps, nudges, winks. He coos over waitress Josee Hansen when she brings him some coffee, and takes note of her French-Canadian accent.
This ritual would be the worst experience of Donald Trump's life. Bush not only shakes hands with commoners, he doesn't even wait for them to wipe the toast crumbs from their fingers. The crowd is not very big, so the candidate has time to shake some hands twice. He leans over the table of Tim Sweeney and Mike Chalifour and engages them in small talk. Sometimes, he winds up chatting with a Democrat -- one Blake's diner informs Bush that he once got a job from Al Gore. "How'm I supposed to compete with that?" Bush wonders.
But Sweeney and Chalifour are both Republicans. Slightly jaded Republicans. The essence of the New Hampshire myth is that a person never knows when a potential president might plop down beside them. "I belong to the Manchester Rotary Club, and we get 'em in there all the time," Chalifour says resignedly. "My wife and I were in here for breakfast a couple years ago and someone came in, I forget who." Bush might get Chalifour's vote. But he won't get Sweeney's. Sweeney recently signed on as Hooksett town chairman for Arizona Sen. John McCain. But he didn't tell the governor that.
"I didn't want to spoil his breakfast."