President Bush rumbled up the critical swing state of Ohio on Saturday on a bus tour aimed at fueling what his strategists call an "echo campaign" of supporters recruiting neighbors, teammates and fellow parishioners who might not be motivated enough to go to the polls if they heard only from television commercials.
Bush used his three stops in Ohio to road-test new appeals to moderate swing voters that he plans to include in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night. He declared at an evening rally here that he is running "because I want to help spread the peace," and said in answer to a question that his favorite book is the Bible but that he also recommends reading modern history. Before telling an anecdote about tortured Iraqis, he said he was thinking of including it in his address.
"I'm here to say to you: I'm ready to lead this nation for four more years, and I want your help," Bush told a crowd of 20,000 at the Troy Public Square in Miami County, where he took 61 percent of the vote in 2000. "We've done a lot. We have more to do."
The Bush-Cheney campaign printed 25,000 tickets for a late-morning rally here and distributed them through a network of elected officials, precinct captains, "team leaders" and other volunteers as a way of testing and energizing the ground force that is needed to turn supporters into voters on Nov. 2. Democrats complain about the exclusionary approach to building a crowd. "We get some grief for our ticket-distribution policy," said Robert A. Paduchik, Bush's Ohio campaign manager. "But it teaches not only the staff but everyone in the organization how to communicate and organize and mobilize."
The Bush-Cheney campaign Saturday saluted its 1 millionth volunteer, who is from Ohio, by having the president introduce her at an "Ask President Bush" forum in Lima. The campaign relies heavily on measurements, and officials said volunteers in Ohio have placed 827,350 phone calls since opening an office in Columbus, the capital, on Jan. 1. Of those, 170,000 took place in the past week, officials said.
Bush continued his variations in mocking Sen. John F. Kerry's statement that he voted for $87 billion for Iraq operations before voting against it. "I suspect you don't find a lot of people right here in the town square in Troy, Ohio, who talk like that," Bush said.
Traffic was stopped along hundreds of miles of roads for the eight-bus, 22-vehicle motorcade, which traveled rural roads paralleling Interstate 75, past businesses such as Anything On Wheels and Rapidfire Guns & Ammo. "I Approve This President," said a banner in Sidney. A man brandished a cardboard sign saying, "Drunks Vote Too."
A Kerry campaign news release headlined "Bus Tour or Bust Tour?" pointed out that 55,000 people are unemployed in the counties Bush visited.
Kerry wrapped up a two-week focus on the economy with another broadside on Bush's economic policies before retreating to Nantucket island to spend much of the next week vacationing and strategizing.
At a rally in Tacoma, Wash., where the jobless rate is nearing 7 percent, Kerry told an estimated crowd of 20,000 partisans that Bush has chosen the rich over the rest, slogans over substance and confrontation over compromise. The result, Kerry said: Most Americans are working more but earning less and paying more for education, health care and energy, while living in a country that is not is safe as it could be.
"This election is about a choice: If we are going to invest in health care, if we are going to invest in education . . . and reduce the deficit in half, we have to roll back George Bush's unaffordable tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans," Kerry said. He added that he would close tax benefits for companies that move jobs and taxable income overseas.
Bush acknowledged a "time of change" for the economy, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said: "I think the economy is clearly growing. We hit a soft patch, and it's not as soft as some of the critics suggest it is."
Bush, who won Ohio by four percentage points in 2000 but is in a neck-and-neck struggle to hold it because of massive losses of manufacturing jobs, said he is aware of the pain. "There are parts of your state that are running behind the national economy," he said in Lima. "I understand that, which means you better get somebody in office who has a plan to continue economic growth."
But in Tacoma, it was fired-up retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark who threw the crowd the red meat it seemed to crave. "George Bush is an incompetent commander in chief," the former supreme commander of NATO said during his introduction of Kerry. The crowd broke into wild applause.
Clark, a former contender for the Democratic nomination, assailed Bush's policies in Iraq and accused the president of questioning Kerry's military service. Bush has said Kerry's Vietnam service was admirable and told the New York Times on Thursday that he believes the Democratic nominee has told the truth about his military record. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an anti-Kerry group formed by several Vietnam War veterans who served alongside Kerry 35 years ago, has accused him of lying to win war medals and an early exit from Vietnam.
VandeHei is traveling with Kerry.