When Gov. George W. Bush got to his campaign plane Tuesday morning, he was treated to the sight of about 40 reporters on the tarmac, decked out for Halloween in special campaign costumes.
A few weeks ago, in anticipation of the holiday, the reporters had ordered pinstriped baseball jerseys from sports apparel manufacturer Rawlings. The team? The "Major-league A's," a reference to the lovely moniker that Bush -- who has promised to restore civility to Washington -- bestowed upon New York Times reporter Adam Clymer for writing a tough story about Bush's running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
Speaking of whom, Cheney gets his own sendup on the back of the jerseys: Above each A's number, big blue letters outlined in yellow read "Big Time."
Smiling and laughing, the Texas governor approached the reporters, many of whom were also wearing cardboard Bush masks. "This one might actually make it into the library," he said, in apparent reference to some future George W. Bush presidential library.
The purchase of the jerseys, at about $50 a pop, was organized by Rick Pearson, a political writer for the Chicago Tribune, whose sister-in-law works for Rawlings. While every shirt has a number on it, Bush's is No. 1, above which the letters read "Bush" instead of "Big Time."
The image of all of us in our shirts (I'm No. 41) sets yet another interesting note of oddness in this last week with Bush. We seem to be hitting states that Bush could possibly win -- like California, Oregon, Washington and Minnesota -- instead of the far more crucial, more electoral-rich swing states that he needs to win -- like Florida and Michigan, where the race is still big-time competitive.
Though Bush will no doubt visit these far more important states at week's end, the idea that we're spending valuable time in states that Vice President Al Gore will probably win has many of us "Big Time A's" scratching our heads.
The only explanation any of us can come up with is that the Bush campaign's chief strategists really think they're going to win, and win big, and that the only question now is whether it will be a sound defeat or a landslide. They seem to think they can win it all, Reagan style, and while I would be loath to dispute their projections -- though several pollsters might not be -- it has also been duly noted that the last time the Bushies seemed this cocky was right before they suffered a 19-point stomping by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the New Hampshire primary. Bush even took Sunday off, retiring to his Crawford, Texas, ranch home.
Gore, in contrast, has spent his time in normally reliably Democratic states like West Virginia, projecting an insecurity, the opposite of Bush's cockiness.
Bush's stump speeches, meanwhile, seem to be tailor-made for his base, but not necessarily for swing voters. The theme of the week is "Bringing America Together," but as Bush has come to California, his tone has veered from fired up to downright nasty. He doesn't really seem all that genial.
Bush slams Gore as having been raised in a posh hotel in Washington, D.C., "on Connecticut Avenue," he said in Burbank. "Hope he liked the room service!" The geography is wrong (the smallish, decidedly middle-class hotel Gore grew up in was on Massachusetts Avenue), and it inaccurately paints a picture of Gore as living in the Four Seasons.
Still, it allows Bush to paint Gore as a Washingtonian and himself as a hardscrabble Texan. "It's just a different [sic] of attitude," Bush says Monday night in Fresno of his coming from, like his audience, "the West." Then he clarified: "West Texas!"
The red-meat-eating crowd loves it.
He rails against Gore over and over, sometimes correctly, often not so. He hits him as being "prone to exaggeration." The candidate who has enjoyed some of the most uncritical media coverage in recent history then engages in some good old-fashioned media-bashing, chiding "the pundits" for not believing that he can win California.
But the real vitriol comes when Bush discusses pending campaign appearances by President Clinton, who, Bush says, had previously cast a shadow on Gore.
"The Shadow's coming back!" Bush says repeatedly, arousing the zeal in the Clinton-hating crowd at the Fresno Convention Center.
"But that's OK," Bush says. "It will remind people we don't need four more years of Clinton-Gore!"
And then Bush raises the Monica-cophony like he previously has not done this campaign season. During his Monday night appearance on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," Bush said that the country wants to get past impeachment, seeming every bit the conciliator wanting to start over.
But a couple of hours later in Fresno, he talks about parents he meets who show him photos of their disappointed children. "Never again," Bush says, using a phrase usually reserved for discussion of war or genocide. "I expect better from our public officials!"