"Now it's just a matter of getting the good folks to the polls," Gov. George W. Bush says on the tarmac at the Orlando International Airport Monday morning, seemingly tired, almost going through the motions. He's just leaving an exhausting 24-hour, four-stop run through Florida, and is off for his last day of campaigning -- in Tennessee, Arkansas, Iowa and then back to Austin, Texas.
"Looking forward to today," he says. "It's been a really interesting, great experience getting to know America firsthand the way Laura and I have been able to do so. I'm excited. I trust the people."
Bush's serene demeanor this morning provides a stark contrast to the preening, mugging cockiness exhibited by his staff, most notably chief strategist Karl Rove, but also a handful of lower-level staffers who have become insufferable.
Not so Bush, at least not in public, as national polls show the race tightening. At a rally in Chattanooga, Tenn., Bush delights the crowd with cautious confidence.
"Ah like what ah feel!" he crows. "Ah like what ah feel! But we can't take anything for granted!"
"I, of course, come from Texas and I plan on carrying my home state," he says. "My opponent vows to carry his home state, and he may win Washington, D.C., but he's not going to carry Tennessee!"
Indeed, its looking like Vice President Al Gore may not earn his home state's 11 electoral votes. And the crowd knows this and cheers, filled as it is with state VIPs, further evidence of how Republican this state is: Gov. Don Sundquist, Sen. Bill Frist, Representatives Zach Wamp, Van Hilleary and Jimmy Duncan. Past GOP power players also show: Sens. Mac Mattingly and Howard Baker; ex-Bush presidential rival and former Gov. Lamar Alexander.
Also on hand are country-and-western singers Lee Greenwood, Loretta Lynn and Michael W. Smith -- plus a black-leather-fringed Billy Ray Cyrus, who I was pretty sure had endorsed the vice president, even though his cloying "We the People" song is a Bush rally staple.
Has Cyrus changed his political allegiance, concerned about Gore's ability to carry Florida?
"I keep an open mind," Cyrus says. "America is at a crossroads here. You know, I'm the father of five. This is the future of our country right here."
As goes Billy Ray Cyrus, so goes the nation.
You won't find many members of the Bush press corps who think Gore has a chance Tuesday, though state-by-state poll numbers show that truly anything is possible. Still, it seems rather unrealistic for the Gore folks to hang their hats on dead presidents like Benjamin Harrison, who was elected in 1888 having won a majority of the electoral college while losing the popular vote.
The Bush team pooh-poohs the possibility; its strategy all along has been to project an aura of smug confidence, preening and mugging and laughing. Sunday night in Orlando, the Bush campaign and its traveling press corps arrived at a hotel where we were all treated to a taped copy of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" Sunday night prime-time political comedy special. It's very odd to see Karen Hughes and the rest laughing at Will Ferrell's portrayal of their boss as a retarded boob.
But their good spirits are thrown in our faces. As is everything else. (Media maven Mark McKinnon referred to Monday's trips to the home states of both Clinton as Gore as "in your face.") Sunday night in Orlando, Rove giddily put a balloon basket on his head. Monday in Green Bay, McKinnon puts a Packers "cheesehead" hat on. Rove was also seen tossing a football during a rally in Miami Sunday, recalling for some reporters nothing so much as his snowball fight before the New Hampshire primary, when Arizona Sen. John McCain stomped Bush by 18 points.
The difference, of course, is that then the Bushies had internal tracking poll numbers that showed them crashing and burning, numbers they chose to ignore. Right now national polls, and momentum, give them a distinct edge. One Gore advisor told me that his campaign's tracking polls have the vice president leading in all the key states -- Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- but the mood among Democrats in Washington is cautious. The Gore campaign thinks it can win; the Bushies think they will win.
The one hint of insecurity comes on Monday when Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer and legal counsel Ben Ginsberg hastily arranged a conference call with reporters to rail about a report that Democrats were luring the homeless to the polls in Milwaukee by offering them free cigarettes. If the Bushies are so determined they're going to win, why would they care about such a trifling matter?
Interestingly, Fleischer demurred from offering an opinion about whether he was similarly offended by an effort by the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, which in Georgia announced that, according to its own press release, it "will be holding Election Day gun raffles to promote awareness of Second Amendment rights that are at stake this election year."
Still, it's the only glimmer of desperation the Bush folks have shown in quite some time.
During the flight from Orlando to Chattanooga, Bush communications director Karen Hughes strolls to the back of the plane to project even more of this assuredness.
She lays out Bush's Tuesday schedule: He'll go for a run in the morning, welcome his twin daughters back from college and vote at the courthouse at around 10:30 a.m. In the evening, he'll have dinner with his family at the Four Seasons, watch the returns in a suite there and finally emerge to give a statement at 10 p.m., Central Time, when all the polls are closed. Then he'll appear at his victory party at the state Capitol, joining the Mariachi Tejano Band, C&W singer Pat Green and bluesman Jimmie Vaughn.
Hughes also starts riffing matter-of-factly about Cabinet announcements and the transition team. She says that Clay Johnson, the governor's chief of staff, will handle Bush's resignation as governor, if need be (wink, wink). Lt. Gov. Rick Perry will be on hand at Tuesday night's rally, and thereafter as well ifyouknowwhatImean.
Any impact from Thursday's revelation about Bush's 24-year-old arrest for driving under the influence has vanished like vapors from a still. Questions persist about Bush's forthrightness about the event -- his 1998 lie to a Dallas Morning News reporter about his arrest, unanswered queries about what other incriminating stories might be out there and an unsettling (and familiar) strategy of evasiveness.
I guess we're used to that by now after Clinton's legacy of parsing, but anyone thinking we're going to have anything other than four more years of it will be sadly mistaken. Some good things come with it, though -- a genial figurehead, a big fat tax cut, a merciful removal of Gore's condescension from the political scene. Plus we get four years of malaprop-a-palooza. At a rally in Green Bay attended by around 3,500 (61,000 are anticipated at tonight's Packers-Vikings game), Bush again refers to the tax on estates of greater value than somewhere in the range of $660,000 -- sometimes called the "death tax" -- as "the death penalty."
The only direct, immediate impact from Bush's having kept his arrest hidden from voters seems to be that he didn't receive the editorial endorsement Sunday of a normally Republican Alaskan newspaper, the Juneau Empire, which cited Bush's lie to the Dallas Morning News as reason for its "lukewarm" backing of Gore. Perhaps the only consistent Republican voice in this sordid episode, the Empire wrote, "In 1998, the Empire called on Mr. Clinton to resign or be impeached on the basis of his lies. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Republican presidential nominee also has betrayed our trust."
Be that as it may, Bush is indubitably in a better position to win Tuesday. He's been fairly consistent in his message, he emotes conviction and he has positioned himself far better than Gore has as the right guy for this era. Gore, for his part, has been fickle in his themes, politically tone-deaf and cloddish on the stump. By running away from the successes of the past eight years, and into a more traditional -- and discredited -- liberalism that has alienated voters who earn more than $60,000 a year, he has played right into Bush's hands. The incumbency, economic prosperity and Bush's own significant weaknesses have made it close. But out here in America, it doesn't really feel like it's going to be all that close tomorrow night.
Boarding the flight to Green Bay, Bush seems nothing but buoyed.
"Billy Ray, you're a great American," he says to Cyrus, posing for a photo with the achy-breaky heartthrob. "We play your song everywhere."
America had better get used to that song.