Amy Morrison is noticeable at Saturday's rally in Michigan because of her red hair, and because she is shrieking and crying. Lately she's gone from worried that Bush might lose to terrified.
"I just want to touch him on the shoulder," she says, "I just need to see him in case I won't see him again. I'm so scared for him." She cries when she sees the first lady, she cries when she thinks the unthinkable -- "President Kerry." Now, instead of just the usual "Four more years," she pleads, "Four more years -- pleeease?"
It used to be that Bush country was the Kingdom of Supreme Confidence. Everyone in the president's orbit was doubt-free, self-assured, steady, alert at the helm. No one ever wavered or shifted with the winds (that's Kerry's thing). All that is still true, only now that buoyancy is strained.
Three days out, polls show the president within the margin of error in all the close states. History shows that incumbents who don't top 50 percent in the polls at this point are in trouble, since undecideds generally vote for the challenger. Democratic activists have signed up millions of new voters who may or may not actually show up at the polls. The war is a wild card that could tip the undecided voters toward Bush, but who wants to depend on that?
This weekend the president's schedule has him jetting to three states Saturday, two Sunday and six on Monday, and campaign officials are thinking of adding another stop on Tuesday afternoon.
Not that he'd ever betray any hint of nervousness. He feels "very at peace with this campaign," Bush told USA Today Friday. "I am incredibly optimistic not only about the campaign but about the country, and I hope people can see that in me. . . . You cannot fake optimism and you can't fake sincerity."
Still, gently, respectfully, the vultures seem to circle: It began with an interview that aired Monday on ABC in which "Good Morning America's" Charlie Gibson asked Bush whether in private moments he thinks about losing.
"I'm not there yet," Bush replied. In the USA Today interview Friday he elaborated: "It's because I don't believe I'm going to lose," and added that he's already outlined his first Cabinet meeting for a second term. Here, in the final stretch of the campaign, every stumble, every gesture, every symbol takes on outsize significance. Is the president getting irritable yet? Did he stare just a little too long and furiously at those protesters?
Friday morning in Manchester, N.H., Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling canceled a highly publicized appearance with Bush. Then, in the middle of the president's speech, confetti rained down 15 minutes early -- curse those local technicians! -- forcing him to continue a somber emotional speech with bits of red and blue paper clinging to him.
Everyone knows bad things come in threes. Could this be a premonition?
Reporters who travel regularly with Bush know the king is nearly unflappable in public, so look for signs from his court. Lately their ubiquity is somewhat suspicious: Dan Bartlett and Karen Hughes and Karl Rove are suddenly popping up at every rally, spinning hard. Friday night Bartlett called the Kerry campaign "desperate." He said the latest polls show Bush up in Ohio and Florida, and that the Kerry campaign could see it "slipping away." "It's close, but we're working very hard," Hughes says on Saturday.
Two weeks ago Rove sat in front of the wheel of Air Force One. Last week Rove was described in a pool report as having pranced to the back of the cabin with a surgical mask on, massaging the scalp of a correspondent, promising to "make the circumcision" and then adding something about going "commando." Are these signs that he is relaxed or that he is trying way too hard to put on a show of relaxation?
Bush meanwhile tried out a personal speech Friday that aimed for an insouciant brand of confidence, and didn't mention John Kerry, or "my opponent," or even "the senator from Massachusetts" once.
Instead he hit the Steady Unwavering theme maybe a dozen different ways. He called himself "consistent" or "true" or "steadfast," and said that "the polls go up, the polls go down, but a president's convictions must be consistent and true."
Or he used the folksier incarnation: "When I say something, I mean it."
Or the bad-punch-line version: "Sometimes, I'm a little too blunt. I get that from my mother. Sometimes, I mangle the English language. I get that from my dad. But all the times, you know where I stand, what I believe, and where I'm going to lead this country."
At which point Charlene Morgano in the audience yelled back, "That's why I love you!" Nonetheless, Bush went back to the standard stump speech one event later.
Bush is famous for his seemingly preternatural confidence, unless you compare him to the real king of confidence. In 1976 Ronald Reagan was flying to New Hampshire before the primary. Pollster Dick Wirthlin told him that he would likely lose. Looking out of the airplane window, he saw the lights of Manchester, just visible beneath the clouds. Reagan replied, "Well Dick, I sure hope someone down there is lighting a candle for me," recalled Wirthlin.
"He just didn't agonize," said Wirthlin. "He really believed that if he wasn't elected president, then it just wasn't meant to happen."
Bush, the Reagan advisers say, doesn't have that distinctive calm. It begins to show in his body language, says one Reagan adviser who didn't want to be identified because he sometimes counsels Bush. "He has a wide-eyed look, his mouth becomes fairly tight and the edges turn down."
Another overconfident, messianic leader -- Howard Dean -- cracked spectacularly, floridly, with his Iowa scream. But those who were close to him saw signs that reality was dawning. Even before Iowa, Dean started asking too many detailed questions during conference calls -- Who was manning the phone banks? What time were people arriving? -- his advisers recall.
In Iowa he watched the results in a bus with a handful of close advisers. " 'It looks like we lost big,' " is all he said, "plain and normal sounding," recalls one of the people on the bus. Then Dean huddled in the back with campaign manager Joe Trippi. In Bush country you see the first signs of people preparing, spiritually, for an alternate reality. At a rally in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nana Young agreed with the Rev. Rod Parsley, from the Center for Moral Clarity. "When we pull the curtain on the voting booth, let us remember that you, Almighty, are still watching," he'd prayed before the event.
Young's church, Grove City Nazarene, will hold a prayer vigil Monday night to ask that the "Lord to put the right man in the White House."
"Lord," they will say, "Guide people when they go into that voting booth. Guide their hand to vote by the Bible."
But Young is not blinkered; she reads the newspapers, knows how hair-thin a margin Bush has in Ohio. Only this week she began to consider the impossible, that Bush could be right and still lose -- and put that together with her conviction that God knows what He's doing.
"If that happens, the Lord must want Kerry to be in there," she says. "If that happens, it must be the Lord is telling us we're living in the Last Days, and we'd better prepare."