-- President Bush wears the look of a man returning home after a very long day.
His face is flushed, his arms loose at his side. The last debate is over, thank gosh. No one will criticize the president at his events, no one will ask questions or press him to admit mistakes. On Wednesday night he was blowing kisses to the shrieking crowd of 35,000 at a rally at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.
This is one of those Bush/Cheney invitation-only lovefests where the president could walk out in his boxer shorts and speak in pig Latin and the crowd would still chant "four more years."
The president is selling conservatism a lot harder than compassion these days. His "uniter, not a divider" persona seems a quaint vestige, and in recent days, his stump speech has been especially rife with ridicule for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry. He routinely calls his opponent "dangerous," and mocks him repeatedly as a "Massachusetts liberal" and someone who sits on the "left bank" of the American mainstream.
Bush has effectively ended his direct appeal to swing voters, his aides say, and will spend the next 19 days speaking to his hard-core supporters. He will remind them to vote, work hard and get excited.
This is not a hard job at Bank One Ballpark. Before Bush arrived, the stadium was the site of a raucous debate-watching rally in which every time Kerry's face appeared on the big screen, he was drowned out by cries of "liar," "shut up," and "gimme a break." Every Bush phrase, no matter how mundane, was an applause line. The president declared that he won't get a flu shot this year and the crowd screamed like it was the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Large chunks of the debate were inaudible.
All in all, this is not the ideal environment for an undecided voter to make a studied decision. But the president is not here to change minds. He looks relaxed for the first time in three weeks. His grin is big and constant, his chest out. His people love him for who he is.
Sen. John McCain, who may or may not love Bush but is campaigning vigorously for him, introduces the president. "Sit down, you Kerry-loving traitor," a man standing behind the third-base dugout yells at McCain, who has broken several times with the White House and who is a close friend of the Massachusetts senator. The bumper sticker slapped across the heckler's Bush-Cheney T-shirt says "4 out of 5 dictators support John Kerry (phone service not available in Saddam's hole)."
"I've been in a lot of ballparks in my days," the president says. "But never in one that's been filled with so many people who are going to go out there and win the vote and make sure we're going to win in November." It is the rare Bush speech that makes no mention of his opponent.
But things return to normal Thursday at a rally in Las Vegas, where Bush describes Kerry as "uncomfortable with himself," someone who "tries to inflate his accomplishments" and is "full of gloom and doom." The crowd -- 12,000 ticket holders packing the University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball arena -- boos every mention of Kerry, slapping plastic noise sticks together for full effect.
Bush sometimes punctuates his sentences with quick cackles, even when he hasn't said anything funny. He did this more than usual Thursday, giggling, for instance, upon mention that Nevada has a 4 percent unemployment rate.
"I'm proud of my record, heh heh heh," he says. "But my opponent seemed to want to avoid talking about his, heh heh heh heh."
In talking about the debate, Bush begins several sequences with the phrase, "Once again last night my opponent said with a straight face," and the sentences never end well for Kerry. Not Kerry's health care policy ("an overpriced albatross"), his foreign policy ("he says he wants a 'global test' ") nor his education policy ("a record of doing nothing").
"He's built up quite a record," Bush says, "even if you're a senator from Massachusetts, heh heh heh heh." The president shakes his head, marveling at Kerry's "20 years of out-of-the-mainstream votes."
"He can run," Bush says, pumping a fist, and the crowd joins him in a responsive "but he can't hide."
At a rally later in the day in Reno, Bush quotes his favorite Kerry line, as he has done almost every day for two months, "maybe the most memorable line of the entire 2004 campaign," the president calls it. This is Kerry's explanation that he actually voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it, referring to a supplemental budget proposal to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush laughs, as if he's never heard this line before.