BLUE ASH, Ohio - Texas Gov. George W. Bush sought yesterday to project the image of a leader with the ideas and the demeanor to tackle the crucial problems facing the nation in a new century.
Some 2,000 well-wishers, booming fireworks and the soaring classical score of the baseball epic "The Natural" greeted the presumptive Republican presidential nominee as he wended his way to the stage on a baseball field 15 miles north of Cincinnati.
His campaign bus circled the crowd as the music crescendoed, evoking an image adopted during the primary season by his rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who used his bus, the Straight Talk Express, as a projection of his insurgent candidacy.
The rain-soaked rally was Bush's only speech of the day. The governor deliberately kept campaigning to a minimum as his running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, stepped into the spotlight by making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows and rallying Republicans at the convention in Philadelphia.
Bush repeatedly used the refrain "I'm running for a reason," previewing a theme sure to emerge during his acceptance speech at the Philadelphia convention Thursday night.
The idea, campaign aides say, is to answer the charge that his candidacy is more the result of his father's achievements than his own and that he lacks the bold ideas and personal presence to be president.
"We're on our way to Philadelphia, and we're on our way to victory," Bush said, reflecting the growing confidence of his campaign. "We've got the ideas on our side."
Bush's speech was delayed for a half-hour when a woman in the crowd fell ill and had to be taken out. Helen Geiger of Cincinnati, 73, died later.
Yesterday was the third day of Bush's preconvention tour to "restore America's purpose," a journey that will take him through six states, all carried by President Clinton in 1992 and 1996. And it was the first of two days he will be stumping in the battleground state of Ohio, which no victorious Republican White House candidate has failed to capture.
Bush has made much of the recent Democratic victories in these states, but he has largely campaigned in Republican strongholds within them. Yesterday was no different, as he appeared in the conservative suburbs of Cincinnati.
The governor has vowed repeatedly to run a positive campaign focused on the future, not the past, but a local radio talk show host, Bill Cunningham, did not follow that script, warming up a crowd drenched by occasional heavy rain with scathing attacks on the Clinton administration.
"Are we going to let an eighth of an inch of rain prevent us from scouring out the White House of the filth and degradation?" Cunningham demanded as he blasted "an attorney general [Janet Reno] who sent 19 children to their deaths in Waco" and "a secretary of interior [Bruce Babbitt] who burned down half the state of New Mexico."
But it was left to surrogates like Cunningham to dish out the red meat. Bush has repeatedly tweaked his stump speech to be as appealing as possible to Democrats and independents, dropping the taunts he delivered just two days ago against Clinton, never mentioning his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, and staying silent on the divisive issues of abortion and gun control.
"He was talking about the issues that people care about," said Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director. "He's not avoiding any issues."
In an overt appeal to Democratic voters, two students of an inner-city charter school in Houston, Kipp Academy, will introduce Texas first lady Laura Bush tonight at the convention. And Bush will be introduced Thursday by Jan Bullock, widow of Texas' former lieutenant governor, Democrat Bob Bullock. Bullock had a cordial relationship with Bush when they served together and endorsed him for re-election in 1998.
"We're taking a different approach," Bush told reporters this weekend aboard his plane. "We're going to bring civility to Washington, D.C. The conservative philosophy is a compassionate philosophy."