SPRINGDALE, Ark. - George W. Bush set off yesterday on a politically freighted journey to the Republican convention, launching his tour to "renew America's purpose" from Bill Clinton's home state and declaring, that "Arkansas is Bush-Cheney country."
With questions about the record and background of Bush's chosen running mate, Dick Cheney, dogging the campaign, the former defense secretary kept a low profile on his only day on the pre-convention tour.
But Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee for the White House, offered Cheney a spirited defense at a rally at Springdale High School that highlighted his running mate's integrity and disparaged the character of the man Bush seeks to succeed.
Referring to President Clinton's evasive testimony before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury, the Texas governor declared that he had "found the right man in Dick Cheney."
"This man is a good man," Bush said. "He is a solid man."
"He's a man who understands what the definition of 'is' is," Bush added, to wild applause from about 2,000 Arkansans, one of whom whooped, "No Slick Willy."
Bush and Cheney spent far more time disparaging the character of Clinton than questioning the skills of their opponent for the White House, Vice President Al Gore.
Cheney delivered a subtle dig at Clinton when he introduced Bush as "a man who's going to give our kids and our grandkids a government we can all be proud of."
Bush's route to the Republican convention in Philadelphia will meander through six key swing states, all of which voted for Clinton in 1992 and 1996 but all of which are very much up for grabs in November. Cheney, who has not sought elective office in 12 years, will be out of sight during the convention run-up, preparing his acceptance speech and brushing up on Bush policy proposals.
Bush's speeches ran down the list of those proposals yesterday, touching on higher educational standards, a stronger military, tax cuts and the diversion of some Social Security taxes to private investment accounts.
But he sent an unmistakable signal that the heart of his appeal to voters - at least for now - is the less tangible issue of integrity.
"Our job will be to lift this nation's spirits, to lift our sights, to call upon the kindness and compassion of America," Bush declared. "In order to call upon the best of America, it requires leadership that understands the responsibilities of holding the highest offices of the land."
The crowd cheered at every allusion to Clinton's ethical problems. As the rally closed, streamers flew. Confetti fluttered. Rock music blared.
Clinton served as the state's governor for 12 years.
The backdrop probably held more importance symbolically than politically. Though Bush leads narrowly in polls here, Arkansas is in play, even if the northwest corner where Bush appeared is clearly in the Republican camp.
The same dynamics were in place in southwestern Missouri, where Bush and Cheney rallied a crowd of almost 4,000 last evening. Bush campaign officials targeted swing states yesterday but chose to appear in parts of those states that have been longtime Republican strongholds.
"We're rallying Republicans on the way to the Republican convention," said Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director.
Mark Fabiani, Gore's campaign spokesman, complained that Bush was waging a campaign of political stunts, garnering attention through tactics, such as appearing in Arkansas, rather than debating Gore on the issues.
Gore campaign aides continue to assail the background of Bush's running mate yesterday, this time targeting Cheney's role as chief executive of the oil services company Halliburton Co. In that capacity, Cheney gave a speech to oil industry analysts last year, expressing confidence that oil-producing nations would soon cut back production, thus raising oil prices and oil company profits.
But the symbolic issues of character and integrity that Republicans have been stressing appeared to have more traction in Arkansas and Missouri than did the nuts and bolts of Cheney's record.
"I don't think the people of this part of Arkansas were surprised" by the scandals of the Clinton administration, said Beth Kenyon of Bentonville. "We just couldn't get the word out fast enough to stop him from being elected in the first place."
If anything, the concern of some people at Bush's rallies yesterday might be that Bush is not conservative enough, hinted Stephanie Vaughn, a Republican committeewoman, who said she pined for a strong conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan.
"I hope [Bush] can look at the middle of the road, play to the middle of the road, than move us right, to where we should be," she said.
Still, Bush's pre-convention tour - through Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania - is a sign of confidence that he can reach out to swing voters. Republican presidential candidates have not won any of those states since 1988, and the last time the party claimed West Virginia was in Reagan's landslide of 1984. Hughes did not deny what she called the "symbolism" of the tour's first stop.
"We are not conceding any territory," she said.
A Gallup poll, taken Wednesday and Thursday for CNN and Time, found Bush leading nationwide by 15 percentage points among likely voters.
Fabiani insisted that he was not concerned. Bush's lead in most national polls is so small, he said, as to be statistically insignificant.
While publicly playing down the poll's significance, Bush campaign aides privately expressed relief - even some surprise - that the critical press coverage that has followed Cheney's selection has seemed to bolster the ticket's appeal with ordinary voters.
The campaign plans to try to keep the news media focused on Bush, even during the run-up to the Democratic convention next month in Los Angeles.
As Gore seeks attention with the announcement of his running mate, Bush will be campaigning in California with Sen. John McCain, whose maverick streak and scrappy Republican primary campaign made him popular among swing voters on the West Coast.
Bush will retreat to McCain's picturesque northern Arizona ranch just before the Democratic convention to offer another image of Republican unity.
Andrew Card, the general co-chairman of the convention, called the McCain swing an effort to stretch the convention from a four-day event to a 16-day media blitz.