Cindy Slack was a desperate woman when the mirage of blue Kerry-Edwards buses suddenly appeared on the dusk horizon on Interstate 55.
Just hours before, on a steamy Memphis day, the 49-year-old unemployed funeral director had stood on Beale Street for two hours to get a glimpse of John Edwards at a rally. But just as Edwards bounded to the stage, she fainted from the heat.
And now, here was this second chance as she headed home to Lepanto, Ark.
"I told my mother I'd crawl on my belly to see him if I had to," screeched Slack, decked out in a huge red straw hat adorned with a Clinton button.
As it turned out, Cindy only had to pull into the rural truck stop to hug the Democratic vice presidential candidate and put him in a virtual headlock, as he worked a rope line in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.
Take note of the new old campaign event, as candidates pull their unwieldy, light-flashing motorcades off the road and venture back deep into retail, touch-the-flesh politics, competing for the best Americana backdrop images on the evening news. In the past week, as their bus caravans moved across the country, John F. Kerry and Edwards have together and separately squeezed about 20 of these more causal spectacles in, between staged message events and huge rallies.
Not to be outdone with all these homespun images, President Bush jumped out of his motorcade at a farmers market near Davenport, Iowa, on Wednesday and chomped on the state icon -- an uncooked ear of corn that he purchased. "Oh, yeah, you don't even need to cook it," he said, brushing off reporters who shouted questions at him that were not about the corn. "It's really good."
These low-key stops are colloquially called OTRs -- for "off the record" -- but there is nothing unrecorded about them. Cameras roll and reporters take notes as the candidates eat barbecue and drink beer with the locals, visit construction sites, and hug wholesome-looking children.
Shaking hands with voters is an age-old retail strategy for getting elected, but in the past 30 years or so it has largely been supplanted -- particularly in presidential races -- with costly mass-media campaigns, in which candidates try to shape their images to the electorate wholesale. More recently, campaigns are turning back to the simpler one-on-one concept as a balance to the larger-scale outreach.
The point, campaign officials said, is that voters and supporters get to see the men in more relaxed settings -- with very little cost to the campaigns.
"They require little planning, and usually the images are used by the local media," said Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. "They work."
And, sometimes, in bigger ways than expected. Kerry made national and local headlines this week when he made an OTR in historic Cuba City, Wis., a town that was miffed when Bush's motorcade whooshed by without stopping in May. Bush had already done three OTRs that day -- and ran into a scheduling issue, said Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman. The president, in fact, had startled customers and staff alike at Leon's Frozen Custard in Oshkosh, Wis., that day by bursting through the door. He shook hands and bought himself some custard.
For the candidates, the added benefits of stops like these is that they are low-stress and fun, a chance for them to actually touch people and say a few words without the pressures of facing a rally of 5,000 distant people. In addition, security concerns are often minimal; because the events are not on the official schedule, the risk is lower.
"The president loves doing them," Mehlman said. "They're a great part of the day for him because he actually gets to talk to people and hear what they're thinking."
In Wisconsin on Tuesday, Kerry made five unscheduled stops and received priceless media attention when he had a beer at a brewery and Teresa Heinz Kerry ate a cheese sandwich -- two of the state's prized exports.
The cheese in the sandwich, it should be stated, was the pungent Limburger. Heinz Kerry ate it with raw onions and then waved it in people's faces. "This is how I'm going to get some privacy on the bus," she told a group standing around her.
Kerry officials say they plan the "unscheduled" stops anywhere from a few hours to a few days in advance -- in time to round up some folks, and give volunteers a chance to arrive with signs. The candidates usually just make pleasant small talk.
"Who'd ever have thought you could eat raw corn?' " country music legend Larry Gatlin, who was traveling with the president, offered to Bush at the farmers market, furthering the raw-corn issue.
"I didn't," Bush replied.
While the campaigns are obviously trying to reach those one or two undecided voters in a town, it's clear many of those who show up are the die-hards who are happy to wait hours for just a handshake. In the tiny town of Bunkie, La., on Tuesday, 150 people waited 90 minutes in an airplane hangar for Edwards as his buses rolled toward a bigger event -- but 100 of them left before he got there because they had to get back to work.
Nonetheless, Edwards reached at least one uncommitted person. The Shreveport Times noted that Lauren Ducot, an undecided voter and teacher, came to meet Edwards. "He's very genuine. He and his wife are just so real," she told the paper.
In Iowa, Kerry jumped out in Grandview (pop. 200) and the buses blared one of his campaign songs, "Johnny B. Goode." He unexpectedly (or so it seemed) learned the town had a Vietnam memorial, so there he was -- on camera -- marching over to it, with what seemed like the whole town following behind.
Resident Lois Wanfalt was quite pleased. "I'm a reformed Republican. . . . Something should be done about our environment, and he and his wife will do it, and something needs to be done about Iraq. . . . I just can't believe we've lost 900 young taxpayers. Why are we over there in the first place?" she said.
But sometimes the events are not all they could be. In DeValls Bluff, Ark., Edwards ventured into a small but famous barbecue joint to order food for his family. Crammed inside already was a phalanx of traveling reporters and cameramen, tapes rolling.
"Where are the workers?" Edwards asked.