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Bush finds campaign magic elusive


BEDFORD, N.H. -- It was exactly four years ago that George Bush was reinvented.

He had come to New Hampshire with every poll showing him a loser. And his staff had already figured out the reason: He was not a regular guy.

He was the wealthy patrician son of a wealthy patrician family (his father had been a U.S. senator), he was more comfortable in a country club than in an Elks club, and for relaxation he drank martinis, played golf and crashed through the waves in a speedboat.

This would never do. Americans might once have delighted in the upper-class mannerisms of Franklin Roosevelt, but that was decades ago. Today is the era of the common man and the common woman and they want a president who reflects their beliefs and values and, yes, even their lifestyles.

So in the critical eight days between the Iowa caucus (which he lost) and the New Hampshire primary, George Bush was reshaped, remolded and retooled.

His state campaign chairman, New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu called it the "see me/touch me/feel me" campaign. "Smell me is for our opponents," he said.

The idea was for people to get close to George Bush and find out that he was a pretty nice person, a person just like them.

The Secret Service was ordered to stay back. The velvet ropes (sometimes real, sometimes figurative) were dropped. Bush's suits (or "units" as he called them, as in "Should I wear the brown unit today or the blue unit?") were replaced with open-necked shirts, sweaters and a Patagonia windbreaker (which had a bulletproof lining).

Bush went to truck stops and drove a semitrailer a few yards; he had a snowball-throwing contest with the press; he went to dogsled races and stamped his feet in the cold.

And the Bush campaign staff made clear that this was a guy who liked beer from the can, pork rinds from the bag and horseshoes out on the lawn.

People could see him and touch him. And, just before primary day, they could feel him, too. They could feel his pain. His speeches began to be filled not so much with programs as with pathos. He told the crowds how he did not need to run for president. He could retire to Maine and play with his grandchildren. But that he loved his country too much to do that. He loved his country too much to do anything but try and serve it as president. And he reached out to them and begged them to give him a chance.

And though some (me, actually) dubbed it the "Vote for Me or I'll Kill Myself Campaign," it worked. It made a connection. The crowds were large and warm and sometimes even choked up.

George Bush won New Hampshire. Shortly thereafter, see me/touch me/feel me was dropped. The ropes went back up. And pathos never again appeared in his speeches.

He became president and golf replaced horseshoes and the speedboat came out of mothballs. And if he has eaten a pork rind in the last four years, he has not bragged about it.

It was not supposed to matter much to his re-election. Americans realize that the presidency is a little bit "imperial" and that presidents live surrounded by the trappings of office.

And the public usually does not care. As long as times stay good.

But a funny thing happened. Times got lousy. And George Bush is back in New Hampshire trying to recapture the magic. But everything is different.

At an unscheduled stop at a crowded restaurant in Manchester, Bush and Barbara plowed up and down the rows of semi-astonished diners (some knew in advance he was coming; some did not) with reporters dutifully following behind, recording his handshakes, his quick "Hi, how are yous" and "Hope I'm not ruining your lunches" and, once, even his taking a camera from a woman's hand, throwing one arm around her and holding out the camera with the other, attempting to take his own group portrait.

But when I interviewed the people later and, back on the press bus, compared impressions and notes with other reporters who had interviewed other diners, we noted the same thing: a lack of excitement, a lack of enthusiasm, a lack of connection. Judy DeLisle and Jane Dwyer, who had been eating macaroni and cheese when the Bush avalanche descended upon them, were very happy at all the fuss and hubbub. And were pleased to shake the hand of the president.

But would Judy vote for him? "Well, I don't know," she told me.

Would Jane vote for him? "I might change my mind and vote for him. Maybe."

Bush plunged on through a full campaign day, but the ropes were very much up. The Secret Service protection was extremely tight (an outdoor speech was reportedly canceled for security reasons) and there was little opportunity for people to get close and experience him.

At the Bedford Mall, a large crowd was kept behind yellow tape so that the president could sweep by and quickly press their flesh.

One man who grabbed Bush's hand asked for a job. Another man who grabbed his hand asked him to release Lyndon LaRouche from jail. (He was hustled away by Secret Service agents).

There was one cute "awww event" when Bush picked up little Amanda Barthelmes, who was dressed picture perfect in a blue velvet dress and red barrette. It looked like a wonderful spontaneous human moment and the whole crowd went, "awwwww."

Afterward, I waded through the crowd to get to her mother, Rebecca. Why did he pick up your little girl? I asked. Because she's so cute?

"The Secret Service arranged it hours ago," she told me. "They asked me if it would be all right if the president picked up my daughter."

And the next day, the papers were filled with stories not about Bush's warm and emotional visit (it was neither), but about how White House staffers had told the bookstore in the mall to prominently stock its shelves with biographies of George, Barbara and Millie, the White House dog.

Bonnie Raymond, 45, who has been out of work since November, had waited in the crowd at the mall for hours. And when Bush passed by, she reached out and handed him her unemployment identification booklet.

Raymond told a reporter later she thought the president "would at least say, 'I'm sorry you're unemployed.' "

But the president took the booklet, autographed it and handed it back. "Nice to see you," he said. "Thank you."

"He didn't see me, he didn't see it," Mrs. Raymond said. "His eyes are not open."

A new George Bush may emerge in this campaign, one with a new image. It may be The Presidential Guy or the Strong Leader Guy or the Good for the Nation Guy.

But the Regular Guy is no more.

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