Gov. George W. Bush is "upbeat," Bush campaign communications director Karen Hughes told the press corps Wednesday morning on the flight from St. Louis, where the third and final presidential debate took place Tuesday night.
"He's very upbeat," she said. "He's upbeat."
We were on our way to Wisconsin, one of the handful of tossup states that Bush and Vice President Al Gore are campaigning hard to win. Though Wisconsin has gone for Democratic presidential candidates in the past, Bush is within striking distance here.
Hence Hughes and the Bush team were eager to proclaim themselves the winners of Tuesday night's debate, declaring the momentum to be with their boy. "Clearly the trend is in one direction -- our direction," she said.
Hughes rattled off a few of the Top Ten list suggestions Bush might read in his Thursday night appearance on CBS's "The Late Show with David Letterman." As both Gore and Hillary Clinton did (with some "Late Show" help) during their appearances, Bush hopes to provide his own Top Ten list: "Top Ten Reasons Why George W. Bush Won the Debate."
"No. 9: There are laws against stalking," she said -- an apparent reference to the moment in the debate when Gore approached Bush physically, trying to get him to answer a question about a patients bill of rights.
"No. 2: He's finally learned the difference between East Timorians and West Texians," she said, seeming to indicate that there are certainly those in the Bush campaign who think it's funny how little he knows and cares about the sphere outside his immediate circle of family and friends.
"And the No. 1 reason why George W. Bush won the debate: Strategery," she said -- a reference to a "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Bush, portrayed as a double-digit IQ frat boy sums up his campaign with a word that doesn't exist.
After hearing the list, penned by his staff, Bush looked at them and asked, "Where are all the funny people?" Hughes said.
Hughes wouldn't answer questions about some of the more questionable comments Bush made during the debate -- such as his assertion that Texans have the right to sue their HMO because of his efforts. "Let's talk about the vice president misstating his own tax plan!" she said, before scurrying back to the front of the plane, promising to return to answer questions, though she didn't.
Bush arrived at the St. Louis airport and was presented by his staff with a makeshift boxing belt that read: "Presidential Debate Champ 2000, with love and devotion Debate Team 2000."
"From an objective group of people," Bush joked, holding up the belt.
Despite Hughes' rhetoric and his campaign staff's fawning, Bush's mood seemed calm and serene as his plane landed and he spoke to a small crowd of about 200 that had gathered at the Chippewa Valley Airport.
GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson greeted him, telling the crowd that Gore wasn't so polite the night before. Continuing the GOP's dedication to intellectual excellence -- furthered last week by New York Gov. George Pataki, who said he didn't know who E.B. White was after Hillary Clinton referred to him in a debate -- Thompson said Gore needed to be sent a copy of Robert Fulghum's "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."
Later, flanked by veterans, Bush noted the presence of a Democratic state senator from Minnesota who had endorsed him. "It says something's happening on the grass-roots level," Bush said. He said that his wife Laura was evidence that he has "pretty good judgment."
Pressing the crowd to plead his case to "open-minded Democrats" and independent voters, Bush said that his presidency would mark "a fresh start after a season of cynicism."
Bush travels the country and people tell him that they want something new, he said. "They don't want four years of Clinton-Gore."
Bush disputed Gore's claim that he's "absolutely against big government." "There's a man who's prone to exaggeration," Bush said. The Bush campaign bandies about the recent study by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan independent organization, that Gore's proposals would "produce the largest spending increases since LBJ and the Great Society." For some reason, the Bush campaign neglects to mention that the same group said that Bush's proposals would produce the second largest spending increases since LBJ.
No matter. Bush slammed Gore for broken promises. Clinton and Gore pledged in 1992 and 1996 to "do something about Medicare and prescription drugs," but they didn't, he said. Now Gore's making the same promises, he said. "They had their chance. They have not led. And we will. We will."
Before he worked the rope line, Bush told the crowd to "getcher smiles ready."
Later, at a rally at the E.O. Johnson Co. -- which makes copiers, fax machines, printers and digital products -- Bush read a statement that honored the victims of the terrorist attack against the USS Cole.
"This tragedy is a reminder that peace is always fragile, and risk is always real, and hate, in this world, does not sleep."
Shifting over to campaign mode, Bush praised his and Thompson's plain-speaking straight talk, saying they were "people who don't take polls and focus groups to tell you what to think."
Bush called in to be on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Then it was off to two other locations in the handful of crucial swing states -- La Crosse, Wis., and Romulus, Mich. -- in the 20-day sprint to Election Day.