President's road show well staged


DERRY, N.H. - The George W. Bush for President Show is now playing in a state near you, and it's a marvel of organization and affirmation.

When the president flew into this southern New Hampshire Republican stronghold the other afternoon for what was billed as a town meeting, the state party and the Bush state campaign team assembled a crowd of nearly 2,000 faithful to greet him, packing a large gym.

Town hall meetings are a storied tradition in New England, going back to Colonial times, and their essence has always been a free exchange of views, an unscripted give-and-take among anybody who chooses to attend.

But the Bush town meetings are not exactly like that. While the Derry affair was open to the public, folks wishing to attend had to obtain tickets from the Republican Party or the local Bush campaign.

For about an hour, the president delivered his standard, well-honed campaign pitch, forcefully assuring the audience that the U.S. effort in Iraq and economic recovery at home are both on the right track.

For the town meeting phase, the party apparatus produced several Derry residents who served as willing props for the president. After meeting some of them briefly beforehand, he coached them through recitations of how various Bush policies had helped them.

One was Kathy Helm, a mother of three small children. He asked her what she did with the $1,700 in tax relief she had received. She used it, first of all, she said, to buy a dining room table. The crowd applauded heartily, if inexplicably, at the choice.

John Kerry, Mr. Bush said, would "rather have the federal government spending the $1,700 as opposed to Kathy and her husband Tom. We believe the Helm family can spend it better than the people in Washington, D.C., can spend it."

Another was Jim Bell, a small businessman who attested to how the Bush tax relief of $34,000 had enabled him to invest $100,000 to upgrade his equipment and hire 17 additional workers. "His decision ripples throughout the economy," the president reminded the crowd.

The question-and-answer period turned out to be a lovefest, without probing inquiries about any of the controversial issues of the presidential campaign.

A longtime veteran of the National Guard read a letter from a local 19-year-old Marine corporal in Iraq who wrote: "I gladly serve and I am honored to have a unique connection with the generation before me." Mr. Bush thanked the Marine for his sentiments and service, to resounding applause.

Another veteran had this question: "Why don't either the State Department or the Defense Department provide a weekly breakdown on all the good things we're doing in Iraq?" Mr. Bush complied himself, citing the immunization of Iraqi children, the restoration of electric power, the approaching elections and other achievements, to more heavy applause.

The same questioner compared what the Bush administration was doing in Iraq to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War, advising that "we have to say this is our generation's Marshall Plan." The president warmly agreed, and so did the crowd.

After a few more similar affirmations of his agenda, the president thanked the choir to which he had been preaching and was off to the next event. And so it goes on the George W. Bush road show.

It must be said that all campaigns, regardless of party, seek to present their candidates in the most favorable light. The practice goes back at least to Richard M. Nixon's similar town meetings in 1968, often held in private with questions planted by his staff, for filming and use on later TV commercials.

The Bush road show is certainly a much more open and yet more deftly structured affair. By comparison, Kerry town meetings are amateur hours.

At any rate, both candidates have agreed to use the format in their second debate next month, before an audience of undecided voters. That should produce more pointed questions than these campaign-run pep rallies passing as town meetings.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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