Is the stress of the campaign becoming too much for Karl Rove?

When Air Force One left Charleston, W. Va., on Thursday to return President Bush to Andrews Air Force Base, passengers on board observed a most peculiar sight: Rove, Bush's top political strategist and a victim of male-pattern baldness, was wearing a blond wig.

It was Halloween, so Rove, conceivably, has a good explanation for his strange nocturnal behavior. But that doesn't explain what occurred Sunday morning on the tarmac in Tampa, as Bush boarded Air Force One. Rove was spotted wrestling with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer for control of a bag containing Rove's soiled laundry.

Later, Fleischer appeared in the press cabin with someone who can only be identified as a "senior administration official" but whose identity is not hard to guess. The unnamed official said Fleischer was "attempting to air the dirty laundry of another member of the president's traveling party." The official described this as "reprehensible conduct" and identified the bag's contents: blue pajamas, socks and a National Marine Fisheries Program T-shirt.

Fleischer defended his behavior as part of "our new sunshine policy." A possible motive: Fleischer wanted Rove's wig. Last week, when the shiny domed Fleischer took the day off, reporters referred to his deputy, Scott McClellan, as a Fleischer "with hair." When he returned, Fleischer requested, wishfully, "please address your questions to 'Scott with hair.' "

It could be a chilly Election Day in the Bush household, though not because of polling results. Appearing in South Dakota Thursday, the president remarked that Laura Bush was not with him that day, but added: "She's coming to the state to campaign, which means you drew the short straw."

No doubt the president meant to quip that he, not his wife, was the short straw. But Bush had already been on thin ice with the first lady since he remarked, a couple of weeks ago, that Laura Bush couldn't attend an event because "she needs to sweep the porch" of their ranch home in Crawford, Tex. The next day, Bush appeared on said porch with his wife and asked reporters, "How's that porch look?" Asked if the first lady appreciated the president's remarks, she mouthed the word "no."

Returning to South Dakota on Sunday, Bush tried again. "The second reason I've come here is because I thought it would be wise to hook up with Laura the day before her birthday," he said. As some in the audience began to sing "Happy Birthday," Bush appeared to have climbed out of the hole. But then he fell right back in by adding: "And, honey, that's your birthday gift."

One might think the president owed her a bit more after the cracks about the porch and the short straw. Finally, Bush hit the right note -- sort of -- yesterday morning in Iowa, announcing: "I couldn't think of a better place to roll over in my bed and say to Laura, 'Happy Birthday.' "

On the stump, Bush almost always observes that both he and the local (male) GOP candidate "married above ourselves," drawing polite laughter. But this presented a problem when Bush visited Arkansas yesterday to tout Sen. Tim Hutchinson -- who divorced his wife and married a younger woman who had worked for him.

Hutchinson, the discreet president said, "is a good fellow and I like being around him."

The grueling itinerary Bush kept for the last five days of campaigning made for a fatigued president -- which, in turn, made for some innovative language in Bush's stump speech.

In New Hampshire on Friday, Bush noted of the terrorists: "They hide in caves. They send suiciders out." In Georgia on Saturday, he referred to GOP Senate candidate C. Saxby Chambliss as "Sonny" before quickly correcting himself. Yesterday, speaking in Iowa about homeland security legislation, he vowed: "We can't have a big thick of bureaucratic rules."

In Boston last month, Bush told listeners the economy was "ooching" -- a nautical term suggesting a lack of speed. Turns out the economy isn't the only thing that ooches. On Thursday, in West Virginia, Bush, talking about terrorists, said: "They live in -- they kind of ooch around -- the dark corners of the world."

In Portsmouth Friday, Bush presented yet another mode of terrorist transport. "There's still an enemy that lurches around," he said.

So if terrorists, once thought to be lurking, are now lurching and ooching, what's the economy doing? "Our economy is bumping along," Bush said Saturday in Tennessee.

Life on the stump often requires improvisation. In South Dakota, Bush said voters should elect a Republican Senate candidate, even though that could cost the state's favorite son, Democrat Tom Daschle, his job as Senate majority leader. In New Hampshire, Bush argued the other side, telling voters to elect a Republican to the Senate so that state's favorite son, Republican Judd Gregg, could become a committee chairman.

But the tactic became muddled in Iowa yesterday. Bush said voters there should support Rep. Jim Nussle (R) because he is chairman of the House Budget Committee. "I can't imagine anybody in their right mind getting rid of a chairman," Bush said. "It doesn't make any sense." Problem is, Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat Bush is hoping to defeat, is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"We appreciate President Bush's support," Harkin campaign manager John Frew said.

Political scientists can debate whether Bush's visits helped GOP candidates. But when it comes to Bush's help for local football teams, the verdict is already in, and it's not pretty. A presidential mention has the same hex-like effect of being on the Sports Illustrated cover.

"The last time I was here, the Fighting Irish were 1-0," Bush told Notre Dame fans in South Bend Thursday. "This time, they're 8-0. Seems like you ought to keep inviting me back." Then, in Georgia on Saturday, Bush joked that he was advised to "keep it short, the Bulldogs are playing." Audience members responded with woofs.

In Saturday's games, No. 4-ranked Notre Dame was upset by Boston College, 14-7, and No. 5-ranked Georgia fell to Florida, 20-13.

President Bush and Laura Bush visit Sioux Falls, S.D., three days after the president may have talked himself into trouble.President Bush makes his trademark "W" sign with his fingers at a campaign rally Friday for Senate candidate John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), right, at Pease International Tradeport Airport in Portsmouth, N.H.