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."
Last week he held four "Ask President Bush" events in Virginia, New Mexico, Oregon and a Florida town named Niceville. Wisconsin marks his 12th, one shy of the number of news conferences he has held in the past 31/2 years in the White House. The campaign insists that the audience is not heavily screened and the questions are not planted. And if protesters are weeded out, that's only a question of hospitality.
"We have an obligation that people can come and have a level of comfort that the event won't be disrupted," says campaign spokesman Terry Holt. "A few people can ruin the experience for everyone. This will be the first or only time some of our supporters will have a chance to see the president, and we feel strongly that people should have good manners and not work to disrupt the events."
Oh look, here's someone who looks like a protester: young Ashley Grzybowski, sitting just outside the main event entrance on a patio chair holding a huge placard, upset she can't get in, sporting smoky eye shadow and unusual piercings. Only look again: Her sign says, "There are three men in my life I love, my dad, my brother, and GEORGE W. BUSH."
There are protesters, one shaggy youth holding a "Where are the WMD" sign and some volunteers from the local Kerry-Edwards office, but they are several blocks away, invisible to the crowd at Lakefront Park.
After each "Ask President Bush" event, the Kerry campaign delights in local press accounts of people kept out. A story in an Albuquerque newspaper quoted one John Wade, who was forced to sign a "President Bush endorsement" form before he could see Dick Cheney speak. "This just ain't right," he said. There are endless stories, confirmed and not, of Bush officials or the Secret Service kicking Democratic activists out of events.
But here in this suburban enclave such strong-arming doesn't seem unnecessary. There were only about 1,500 tickets issued for the event. The local paper reported that half were handed out to party leaders.
"I will not confirm that," says Dean Knudson, chairman of the St. Croix County Republican party. "We have lots of excited, enthusiastic people. We called our people and the word spread and they're just so excited; it's an enthusiastic throng, eager for the chance to see the president."
He adds: "I personally have invited Democrats."
And yet a survey of the crowd shows most to be somehow connected to the GOP or the event. The eight O'Brien siblings got tickets because their father, Thomas, is a lifelong Republican and a judge. Ed and Joanne Holdorf got them because their son provided the golf carts. Jerry Isaacs got them from a neighbor who is a party activist, etc. Not a scientific survey, but the numbers pretty quickly added up to 1,500. And none were likely to be rabble rousers.
Some dissenters did get through. Char Trende's husband is the chief of police. She came with her daughter Andrea Werk, but only to hear the president out. "I think he should be defeated," says Trende. "He really bungled the war." But at the rally, Trende would keep these thoughts to herself.
The campaign says the president likes the events because they showcase his strengths. And although the immediate audience is the converted, the larger local TV audience isn't.
"We feel like the president has a strength Kerry doesn't," says Terry Holt. "He can make a connection with people; he has a sense of humor. This is a great way to showcase the president and his policies."
"He does his best in front of small groups," agrees Republican strategist Charlie Black. "People get a sense of his intimate personality."
But it's no mystery why Bush likes them. Each session is like a 90-minute support group dedicated to him. In them he is "bold," a "fighter," "the man for this job at this time," in the words of various questioners, someone whose "candle is burning brightly." He is a "man of faith" or a "man who lives by his faith" or who's "answered a calling." Meanwhile, Kerry is "Jane Fonda's poster boy," from one questioner in Pennsylvania, or "a candidate with two self-inflicted scratches," from one in Oregon.
"Lord, we're asking for four more years for President Bush to lead this country," Pastor Randy Simonson prayed at the Wisconsin event.
For most of the question-and-answer sessions, the president is endlessly being thanked, for "serving our country," for "everything you did after September 11th." He is prayed for, by mothers and twins and homeschoolers and grandparents and a blind man. He is asked to pray for the unchurched in the state he happens to be in, a request he gently declines, explaining to his audience that people who don't go to church are "equally American."
This session in Wisconsin followed the pattern of most. Bush stood on a small platform in shirtsleeves and no tie, the sun turning his face red. He ambled around the stage as he had all day, goofed around with the locals, let loose his snorty laugh.
He made the joke he always makes about Dick Cheney not being the prettiest guy in the campaign, about his mom still telling him what to do. He made a long speech defending the war in Iraq, one that climaxed with: "Knowing what I know today, I would have made the same decision," to great applause. He showcased five local citizens who'd started new businesses or remodeled their homes to show that not only rich people benefit from his tax cuts.
Then it was time for questions and answers.
One person asked about Bush's support for unions, but Bush cut him off, saying: "I respect everyone's right to unionize." Another asked about the presence of the real enemy -- Satan -- which Bush soft-pedaled into something about faith-based initiatives. Luckily, for those uncomfortable moments the microphone wasn't working.
"Don't worry, I'll be the interpreter," Bush said. "And if I don't like the question I'll just change it."