President Bush invited 10 employees of a steel company that has threatened massive layoffs to join him aboard his luxury campaign bus Saturday as he plunged into the Rust Belt to try to improve his image among worried workers, even as he labored to portray John F. Kerry as aloof and shallow.
Bush has been appearing in front of almost uniformly supportive crowds, with his campaign or the White House carefully dispensing tickets as a tool for weeding out dissent. But there was no disguising or diverting the pain in Dover, once a flour- and steel-milling center, where Bush's eight-bus caravan passed by rain-soaked residents waving signs such as "We Need Jobs" and "Thanks for Stealing My Daddy's Pension."
Ohio, perhaps the most crucial target for both campaigns, has begun regaining jobs but still has about 200,000 fewer than when Bush won the state by 4 points in 2000. The industrial states' importance was underscored Saturday afternoon when the bus motorcades of Bush and Kerry came within 40 miles of passing each other on Interstate 70 in western Pennsylvania. Bush took a detour to drive through Wheeling, W.Va., where Kerry was scheduled to appear 90 minutes later.
In Dover, Bush's bus, emblazoned "The Heart and Soul of America," was greeted by a barefoot, red-headed girl carrying a poster that said, "My grandpa lost his job! -- your Turn!" Her older sister, wearing flip-flops, brandished one that said, "My grandpa lost his job -- you should too!"
The president's speeches typically portray a robust, recovering economy. But on Saturday, as Bush finished a two-day, four-state bus tour, he personally confronted the human fallout from the heavy job losses of the past four years, which have hurt his popularity in many of the manufacturing towns that are part of his natural base of support.
"The economy is strong, and it's getting stronger. It lags in places like eastern Ohio -- I know that," Bush said at a rally in Canton, which has lost 12,000 jobs since Bush took office. "I just traveled on the bus with workers who told me they are nervous about their future. They're concerned. I am, too. And, therefore, we must have a president who understands that, in order to keep jobs at home, America must be the best place to do business." Canton is in Stark County, a presidential bellwether that Kerry visited recently.
On the second day after the Democratic convention's close, the president used his tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania to deal with some of his weaknesses and try to exploit Kerry vulnerabilities that the Bush camp identified during the four-day party meeting in Boston.
Advisers said Bush wants to show that he is concerned about the plight of people who are unemployed or worried about keeping their jobs, a message his father failed to convey when he was running against Bill Clinton in 1992. In polls, Bush has lagged when respondents were asked whether he cares about the problems of people like them.
At the same time, Bush's aides said the convention showed them that Kerry will never be the more personable candidate in the race. The aides said they plan to keep the president in many casual settings in the weeks ahead instead of emphasizing the trappings of office that they had favored when they thought his biggest strength was his role as commander in chief.
So Bush was out in rolled-up sleeves this weekend, saying things such as, "You can't talk sense to these folks," in reference to terrorists. He made a snide aside to "places like Washington, D.C." He visited a Dover candy store and spent about $1.50. He tossed around a football at the Cleveland Brown's training camp, and waved at thousands of supporters who waited for hours outside the Friendly's restaurant in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, the Motel 6 in Strongsville, Ohio, and hundreds of other down-home spots.
Bush strategists said their other big insight from the convention was that Kerry's glancing attention to his Senate record showed that there are what one GOP official called "tons of holes" ripe for highlighting. Until now, Bush has been attacking Kerry for what he has done as a senator from Massachusetts. Increasingly, aides said, Bush will criticize him for what he has failed to do in office. One of the biggest crowd-pleasers the president unveiled on the tour was his assertion that Kerry "had no significant record in reforming education or health care."
Bush's visitors aboard his coach -- half of them union members -- were workers at Timken Co., which makes steel ball bearings and announced in May that it would close three plants in Ohio. The closings would eliminate 1,300 jobs. W.R. "Tim" Timken Jr. , the company's chairman, is one of Bush's fundraisers.
Kerry and the Democratic Party have made a major issue of the planned closures. The company has sought union concessions. The Massachusetts senator has urged Timken and union members to use federal mediators to negotiate the shutdowns.
Kerry's campaign directed reporters to Dan Sciury, president of the largest local labor group, the Greater Stark County AFL-CIO, who said Bush used the Timken workers "to try to show he's not such a bad guy, but he didn't display any of them."
Although Bush took a risk by stepping out of his nearly impregnable bubble and drawing attention to the plight of Timken workers, his move was designed to bolster his regular-guy image. The bus tours produce saturation coverage in local news outlets, and presidential aides said studies show that readers and viewers consider such local accounts more authentic than portrayals of Bush by the national news media. Representatives of newspapers including the Repository of Canton, Ohio, were granted interviews aboard Bush's bus Saturday, while reporters for the New York Times and The Washington Post were on a follow-up coach.