BURLINGTON, N.C. — BURLINGTON, N.C. -- The president of the United States hangs off the back of his train car with one hand clasping an overhead bar and a microphone in the other. When he spots people waiting for him along the tracks, the train slows so he can call out to them through loudspeakers.
"Nice to see you," "Thanks for coming." Mr. Bush says, grinning and flashing his thumbs-up signal as he darts from side to side of his observation platform. Occasionally he talks back to hecklers, like the man yesterday who called out, "I don't think so."
"I think so, old fella," the president retorted.
At his rally stops over the past two days in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina the crowds are bigger and more supportive than the heckler-laced gatherings he's been drawing elsewhere. Often there are fireworks and balloons, and always high school bands. It's not hard to recall in such moments those halcyon days of small-town victory celebrations after the Persian Gulf war, when he was still the untarnished hero of Desert Storm.
Mr. Bush was feeling so full of himself yesterday in Kannapolis, N.C., he said that choosing his Democratic opponent, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, to lead the nation would be "like sending some Little League guy to coach the Braves."
No group is too small for the president's attentions on this trip. Once the train brakes almost locked because the engineer had to put them on so fast.
This whistlestop gambit through mostly friendly territory is therapy for a battered candidate and a tonic for his struggling campaign.
"I hate to leave you," Mr. Bush told the assembled citizens of Thomasville, N.C., yesterday afternoon, where the mayor pro tem urged him to "keep the faith."
"This is good for the soul," the president said.
The candidate looks better and sounds better when he's among friends, and the press coverage is mostly positive with pretty pictures. Local reporters and television cameras were favored with personal interviews aboard the train.
This two-day trip may not boost anything but morale. But at this point in Mr. Bush's frustrating struggle to save his job, that's a lot better than nothing.
There were some signs yesterday that the race was tightening, although the latest CNN/USA Today tracking poll still had the president 13 points behind.
Even though presidential train travel is very expensive for the campaign because of security concerns, and requires enormous advance preparation, this is the second rail journey Mr. Bush has taken this fall and a third is planned before Election Day, Nov. 3. Campaign officials had hoped to schedule a fourth train trip, but with less than two weeks to go they aren't sure there's enough time.
No matter where he goes across the country -- even in the battleground states -- his stops are scheduled in tiny Republican towns that look like Norman Rockwell paintings.
"We need to get him out of the rather sterile atmosphere of an airport news conference that only invited people come to," said South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell, who rode the train with Mr. Bush. "We want people to be able to come from all walks of life. Going through small towns gives people that chance."
"It also gives the president a chance to feel something from these people," the governor continued. "I'll tell you this president is feeling. He's jacked sky-high."
Mr. Bush confirmed that observation yesterday morning when he spoke to a crowd that came to greet him in Gastonia, N.C.
"This train trip is fantastic," he said. "You get outside that [Capital] Beltway; you take your case to genuine Americans."
He had just come from trading bad jokes with some "genuine Americans" over a symbolic breakfast at the Waffle House in Spartanburg, S.C., which is part of a restaurant chain in the South. Mr. Bush's joke concerned a bartender who tells a duck, "Your pants are down." He had to explain the punch line: "Down" has two meanings.
The point, of course, of his butter- and syrup-smothered breakfast was to dramatize what the president calls Mr. Clinton's penchant for "waffling" on issues like the U.S. decision to go to war in the Persian Gulf.
"If we had listened to him," Mr. Bush said of his opponent in Thomasville, "Saddam Hussein would be in downtown Saudi Arabia and controlling the world oil supply and have a nuclear bomb."
The president's re-election message has now been boiled down to the contrast between himself and Mr. Clinton he tried to highlight at the final presidential debate Monday.
"A vast difference in philosophy, in approach to this great country of ours and I hope you saw a difference in character because that's what going to decide this election," is the way Mr. Bush put it in Kannapolis, where he was the first president to visit since George Washington.
Despite the newly sprouted gray at the president's temples and the defeated tone that sometimes creeps into his voice these days, Bush aides are making a great effort to convince his supporters he hasn't given up.
North Carolina Gov. James G. Martin warned that this effort was vital because if Bush supporters are too discouraged to vote, then the predictions of the president's defeat will be "a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Contrary to what I keep reading, there is nothing wrong with the president's mood except that he's frustrated at the coverage," said Mary Matalin, a senior campaign official. "But this is the kind of coverage we need."
Besides, she said, "It's fun, and the president enjoys it."