One last group hug

Bush takes a final whack at Clinton and Gore before thanking everybody -- even the press. And one reporter shows her gratitude too.

By Jake Tapper

Published November 7, 2000 3:31PM (EST)

It's tough to insult your opponent any more clearly than the campaign of Gov. George W. Bush did Monday night. His welcome to President Clinton's home state, at a rally in a Bentonville, Ark., airport hangar, was scored to Clinton's 1992 theme song, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinkin' About Tomorrow)." A few notes into the song, however, came the sound of a record being ripped from a turntable and replaced by the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," blasting a clear message to the president and vice president who unseated Bush's father eight years ago.

Bush noted that few would have predicted that Arkansas would be his last stop on the campaign trail. "Can you imagine what the world would've said" if told that? Bush asked the crowd. "'Wait a minute. Arkansas?'"

Bush's presence was rooted in more than hubris, however; Arkansas is truly up for grabs this year, as, indeed, is Tennessee, Vice President Al Gore's home state. A recent poll by the Memphis Commercial Appeal had Bush leading Gore in Arkansas 47 percent to 44 percent, with 9 percent undecided or committed to other candidates.

"We're gonna declare Arkansas tomorrow!" Bush said to cheers, in his eighth visit to the state since declaring his candidacy.

Bush campaign officials, like chairman Don Evans, spokeswoman Karen Hughes and chief strategist Karl Rove, were positively giddy as the Who smashed Fleetwood Mac's music aside. Dorky-looking high-fives arose all around.

"Big time!" Rove squealed. "Major league!"

USA Today reporter Judy Keen, whose Bush coverage has been among the least critical, hugged Evans. After that touching moment passed, Bush delivered his stump speech one last time. Of those who said that he didn't have the courage to tackle Social Security reform, Bush said, "they misunderestimated me." It was not a joke.

Then back on the plane for one last run in the 757, beer flowing among the reporters, producers, cameramen and photographers. Bush got on the loudspeaker and thanked the reporters for their hard work and professionalism, after which he rather graciously strode back and shook everyone's hands.

The reporters then began cheering for different members of the campaign support staff who walked down the aisle -- media travel coordinators Jill Foley and Megan Moran, baggage and equipment coordinator Mercer Reynolds and his team, and others.

The sincere expressions of appreciation were soon replaced by attempts to see whom we could get to emerge from the front of the plane to stroll down the gantlet. Hughes? Evans? The pilot?

They all came back, save for Laura Bush. She was cheered at one point, but embarrassingly enough, an aide named Gordon thought that the cheers were for him, and he came out. So we cheered for him, too.

No one cheered for Rove, so he remained up front.

In the back of the plane, one photographer held a little trip down memory lane, offering a slide show of sorts by reviewing on his computer screen all his best photos since Bush's campaign began in June 1999. Someone popped a tape of Sunday night's "Saturday Night Live" political comedy special into the plane's VCR, but it was turned off after the third sketch.

We landed in Austin. It was 11 p.m. or so, and above an enraptured crowd an immense blue banner blared, "Welcome Home Governor Bush!" Hundreds of supporters waited in yet another hangar, while nearby someone sold commemorative Bush Beanie Baby-like dolls.

Bush seemed tired. We'd traveled from Florida to Tennessee to Wisconsin to Iowa to Arkansas to Texas, more than 3,000 miles.

He predicted victory -- even in California, a state that Bill Daley, campaign chairman for Vice President Al Gore, told reporters on Air Force Two Monday night Gore would win by 10 to 12 points. "You probably think I've maybe been on the trail too long, but you watch what's gonna happen out in the great state of California," Bush said, in remarks that were beamed to five Bush campaign rallies in the Golden State.

Bush thanked his "fantastic staff of hardworking people who're gonna deserve a lot of credit tomorrow night when the American people speak."

"We've laid the groundwork, and if people do what I think they're going to do, you're looking at the next president of the United States," Bush said.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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