President Carter's vacation on the waters of the Mississippi is taking on all the trappings of a campaign trip.
During the last two days, he has made nine speeches with this stately old steamboat and the bluffs of the Mississippi as a backdrop. He has shaken thousands of hands. He has kissed at least a dozen babies. And he has had his picture taken with every one of the passengers aboard this steamboat as it wends its way past Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa -- all early political states important for his renomination.
This morning Carter was up at 3, shaking hands among the hundred people who had gathered in the fog at a lock at Genoa, Wis. Hours later, wearing a baseball cap and jogging shoes, he was out shaking hands with another group of people in a driving downpour.
"T's a campaign, no doubt about it," said one passenger. Dr. Walter Balzer, as he watched Carter leave the Delta Queen with a drenched crowd at Lynchville, Wis. "I think it must be a terrific ego trip. He can't help but think people are for him."
Carter's 150 fellow passengers aboard the Delta Queen think it is a strange way to spend a vacation. They are both baffled and intrigued. They can't get over a president wearing jogging shoes and blue jeans. "He isn't getting much sleep," said Richard Dodge of New Hope, Minn. "but I think he's having a good time."
More than half of the boat passengers appear to be Republicans, solid Midwestern doctors, businessmen and retirees. Their average age is about 60. They aren't won over easily.
"He's so common it's hard for me to believe he's that important which is to his credit," said Baizer, a Davenport, Iowa, physician, adding that he didn't think he'd vote for Carter in 1980. "I admire him and like him. But he hasn't produced."
The America that Carter is seeing is a beautiful slice of the nation's heartland. Majestic bluffs rise from the banks of the muddy, slow-moving Mississippi. Families camp on the sandy shores. Cabin cruisers and speedboats with young women wearing bikinis and young men holding beer cans glide by.
Here and there, a town with a name like Wabasha, Alma, Winona or Prairie du Chien emerges from the trees. These are some of the oldest towns in the Midwest. Once they were busy and colorful. Now they are largely forgotten.
Prairie du Chien, for example, is an early fur trading center and the second oldest city in Wisconsin.
Carter was met in this town shortly after noon today by U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Pat Lucey, formerly a popular Wisconsin governor, and a crowd of about 2,000. After shaking hundreds of hands, the president jogged four miles around a high school track (passengers on the Delta Queen had complained that his shipboard running had awakened them Saturday). Later, Carter crossed the Mississippi to McGregor, Iowa, to have lunch at the home of Sen. John Culver, who faces a tough reelection fight.
Carter's themes the last two days have been the same he used in his July 15 energy speech. "Everyone knows we have the best nation on earth," he says at almost every spot, speaking on the top deck of the Delta Queen, "And the strongest."
The crowd invariably applauds loudly.
Then he says Congress desperately needs to pass his windfall oil profits tax proposal and everyone needs to start conserving more energy "We've had a great trip and you've all made it greater by coming to greet us," Carter usually adds. Then, he, his wife, Rosalynn, and sometimes his 11-year-old daughter, Amy, lunge into the crowd.
People love it.
Carter insists there's nothing "partisan about this" and that the thousands of people who come to see him want to look at a president of the United States, not Jimmy Carter. "It's a campaign for a stronger country and a comprehensive energy policy." he said at one point.
Carter's life on the boat coninues to be as normal as it can be for someone who is giving more than a half dozen speeches a day. Today the Carters ate with the 150 passengers on board. They worshiped with them. (Dick Tooker, the leader of the Riverboat Ramblers, the boat's band, was the chaplain). And they made small talk with the passengers.
"Most of the time we stay busy with people who want something from the government." Mrs. Carter said on shore at Prairie du Chien.
Crowds lined the river along the route. And it's not unusual for 20 or more boats to circle the aging paddlewheeler.
On board, the atmosphere is free and easy. Amy has made friends with several young passengers. Carter has only a skeleton staff with him and appears to be out of touch with the rest of the world. Laughter and liquor mix freely. On Saturday night, press secretary Jody Powell bantered with a crowd at Dresbach, Minn., for about 15 minutes after the president spoke.
When he was asked what powered the Delta Queen, Powell, with a drink in his hand, said, "This boat's been running on Jack Daniels for the last three miles."