HOUSTON -- President Bush soldiered through the final campaign day of his 30 years in politics yesterday clinging to the last refuge of underdogs: that the doomsayers are wrong.
"It's not the pundits that matter, it's not the media in Washington, D.C.," Mr. Bush told a rambunctious rally in an airport hangar in Akron, Ohio. "On Tuesday, it's the people that matter."
Last night, at a homecoming celebration here in Houston, where he began his political career as a local Republican chairman, the president said:
"I learned here that you fight when your back is against the wall, you never give up . . . I think Americans like a comeback, and that's what I'm doing, right down to the wire.
Earlier, he told a crowd of mostly school children that waited for him in the pouring rain in a Republican suburb of Philadelphia: "We are going to pull off one of the biggest surprises in political history."
Calling this the most "unpleasant year" of his life, Mr. Bush warned voters at an airport rally in Louisville, Ky. that today is a "day of responsibility and I ask you not to take this responsibility lightly."
"When you walk alone into that booth you will not spend more than a couple minutes, but your single voice will echo down the corridor of time . . . ," he said.
In making his final pitch, the president sought once more to raise doubts about Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton who, he said, earned the nickname of "Slick Willie" because of "a pattern of deception."
"I guess what it boils down to is this," he said at an early morning rally in Madison, N.J. "When you go into the booth all across this country: Who do you trust?Who do you trust with the future of the country?"
"And I have been tested," he said. "We've managed a world change of almost biblical proportions. And our success can be measured by the headlines that were never written, the countless crises that never occurred."
Referring to what he called the Democratic challenger's conflicting statements on whether he supported the Persian Gulf war, the president said, "Imagine a dangerous situation -- and an American leader totally without experience, completely untested, a person who couldn't even call it right when aggression threatened the whole world?"
Presidential aides insisted Mr. Bush was still confident of victory in his re-election bid despite the latest CNN/USA Today poll of likely voters showing Mr. Clinton's lead growing to 8 percentage points.
None of the president's aides took it upon themselves to dampen his enthusiasm, said Robert M. Teeter, Mr. Bush's campaign chairman.
"Several times a day, I'm going over how we can [win] it," Mr. Teeter said. He said he believed one-third of the states were still in play.
But Mr. Teeter, a pollster by trade, acknowledged this campaign was putting to the ultimate test his theory that elections are decided in the last few days.
On Sunday, when his final week's surge seemed to have peaked, Mr. Bush appeared to have given up a realistic hope of winning. His tone changed and his optimism no longer seemed genuine.
But yesterday, as the president slogged through six stops in six states with a total of 108 electoral votes, he started slow but became buoyed by the enthusiasm of his audiences. "This is the last day I will ever campaign for myself for president of the United States or anything else," Mr. Bush said at the rally in Madison, Wis.
"I can't tell you what this crowd means. Just take your enthusiasm to the polls, take your neighbor."
"He's beginning to realize that this is the last time," said James A. Baker III, the White House chief of staff who has known Mr. Bush since the early days of his political life in Texas.
One of Mr. Bush's best lines of the day came in the morning, when he finally managed to combine two of his favorite themes: Mr. Clinton's proposal to raise taxes and his hobby of playing the saxophone.
"When Bill Clinton's blowing the saxophone, middle-class America will be singing the blues," Mr. Bush said in Madison. "We just can't let that happen in the United States."
His audiences also began to anticipate some of his best known sound bites.
They shouted with joy in Akron, Ohio, when he first mentioned "Ozone Man," the president's nickname for Sen. Al Gore, the Democratic vice presidential nominee who has written about damage to the ozone layer.
But in New Jersey the Clinton-Gore camp made fun of another of Mr. Bush's nicknames for the Democratic ticket: "Bozos."
Several Clinton supporters showed up wearing clown suits.