President Bush ended his $273 million reelection campaign Monday with a soggy six-state sprint focused on the small towns and fervent supporters that were the linchpin of his strategy.
"On to victory!" Bush said as he raced out of a breakfast-time rally in a chilly hangar in Wilmington, Ohio, and on to a few last stops after 16 months of a frenetic circuit of fundraisers and rallies.
The president closed the long and contentious campaign with a show of confidence and bravado, even as polls continued to show a dead heat with Democratic nominee John F. Kerry. With critical states still looking as if they could tip either way, some Bush advisers expressed worry about the incumbent's prospects on Tuesday.
In contrast to the light schedule he kept on election eve in 2000, Bush worked 19 hours this time, promising "strong, confident, optimistic leadership" as he traveled from dawn past midnight, going from Ohio to Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to Iowa, where he spoke in front of a barn and silo, to New Mexico, where his fireworks lit up a mesa, and then home to Texas. After voting near his ranch in Crawford, Tex., Bush plans to stop in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday during his return to the White House.
Continuing to leverage the assets of incumbency, Bush landed at Wilmington, outside Cincinnati, in his Marine One chopper as the "Top Gun" theme was played. Air Force One was already parked nearby, and Bush boarded it after his remarks, waved briskly and headed for suburban Pittsburgh with the crowd still squealing and holding "Buckeyes for Bush" posters aloft with mittened hands.
The president has rarely spoken to traveling reporters since the summer, but he sauntered over to the wing of Air Force One in Burgettstown, Pa., to answer a shouted question about how he feels. He gave a thumbs-up and said he had embarked on "a seven-stop day, because I want to continue telling the people what I intend to do to protect them, and how I intend to put policies in place to make sure America is a hopeful place."
"We're coming down the stretch, and I feel great," he continued. "I'm looking forward to the day, I really am. I'm excited by the size of the crowds. I'm energized by the support that I have received across this country." Bush thanked reporters who covered his campaign: "Look at it this way, it's like that marathoner. That finish line is in sight."
In a show of confidence, Vice President Cheney briefly forsook the battlegrounds and flew all night for an hour-long 11 p.m. rally in Hawaii, a Democratic stronghold where polls have shown Bush is competitive. The vice president, who wore a lei during his remarks, then flew to Colorado for a rally.
Bush's aides predicted victory when talking on the record, pointing to polls showing that the race remained a tossup, both nationally and in key states. But despite the insistence that all was well, the erosion in the moods of Bush's inner circle over the past two weeks was unmistakable. Several of his close advisers said they were concerned because the president had achieved no last-minute momentum, and Democratic turnout was looking as if it might swamp the Bush-Cheney campaign's projections.
A Republican official who is privy to Bush-Cheney strategy and polling said that as the incumbent, Bush should be further ahead of Kerry in polls. "Some of them have been moving in the right direction, but it isn't enough," the official said. "Karl [Rove] is a big believer in the bandwagon effect, but there has been nothing over the past week for the president to use it to turn it around."
Still, aides said the president was joking and playing gin rummy with Rove, his senior adviser, in the conference room of his Boeing 747. Bush even agreed to join a gin rummy tournament with seven aides.
Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief ad strategist, flew with him all day and said Bush was "nostalgic" about having so much of his team from 2000 out on the road with him one last time. Asked about the mood on the plane, a subdued McKinnon replied, in a deadpan voice: "Jubilation."
Bush, who closed rallies in 2000 by promising to restore the honor and dignity of the presidency, asked election-eve audiences for a renewal.
"Four years ago, when I traveled your great state asking for the vote," Bush said in Wisconsin, "I made this pledge, that if elected, I would uphold the honor and the dignity of the office. With your help, with your hard work, I will do so for four more years." Bush gave statistics in each state that he said showed the economy is "strong and getting stronger," and he asserted that "freedom is on the march" in Iraq.
In a surprise, Bush was introduced in Ohio by Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who limped to the stage because of a displaced tendon. Schilling had canceled an earlier appearance with Bush, citing medical reasons. Bush was also greeted in Milwaukee by the country group Brooks and Dunn, whose song "Only in America" is usually played, in recorded form, at Bush rallies. In Des Moines, Bush was rejoined by first lady Laura Bush, who had planned to travel with him all week but instead held her own rallies because polls showed some female voters moving toward Kerry.
Cheney, who in recent days has delivered his standard speech with a businesslike monotone, seemed recharged by a late-afternoon rally in a high school gym in Henderson, Nev.
In disparaging Kerry as a tough-talking poseur, the vice president said, "As we like to say in Wyoming, you can put all the lipstick you want on a pig, but at the end of the day it's still a pig." As the audience howled, Cheney smiled and said, "That's my favorite line. Would you like me to say it again?" before repeating it to even louder laughter.
Layton is traveling with Cheney.