George W. Bush zigzagged across the American heartland Monday in an intensive seven-stop surge to keep his job, playing to his natural strengths: discipline and incumbency. The electoral advantages of being president were vividly displayed in the rural Ohio town of Wilmington, which appeared to have been seduced by the arrival of Air Force One and the vast presidential retinue. Max Allen, a farmer, woke up at 4 a.m. to witness the spectacle. "I never saw a president before," he said. This was an ideal time.
Every vote in this potentially decisive battleground state is precious, and no effort has been spared on either side to galvanize support. By 6 in the morning the line of cars stretched for miles around the airport. No one could have been left unimpressed by the display waiting for them when they arrived in a packed aircraft hangar. The doors had been pulled open, framing the looming blue and white head of Air Force One like a movie screen.
The presidential jet was there to await Bush's arrival, and he appeared right on time at 7:30 a.m., dropping out of the clouds in one of a squadron of green Marine helicopters. As it approached the hangar, the sound system played the grandiose theme tune of "Air Force One," a thriller starring Harrison Ford as a tough, embattled president. The crowd found itself part of a movie and erupted with delight.
The president, dressed in a bomber jacket, delivered a speech similar to one he must have repeated a thousand times. He is not an improviser. Even his jokes are the same ones he was telling when he set off on the campaign trail months ago. "Sometimes, I'm a little too blunt -- I get that from my mother. Sometimes I mangle the English language -- I get that from my dad," Bush said. If his hosts had heard it before, they were too awestruck to let it show.
The laughs raised the hangar roof, and the crowd cheered the payoff line: "But all the time, whether you agree with me or not, you know where I stand."
The campaign song also remained unchanged. It was by country singers Brooks and Dunn, and belted out a simple patriotic creed: "Only in America / Dreamin' in red, white and blue / Only in America / Where we dream as big as we want to / We all get a chance / Everybody gets to dance / Only in America."
Only in America, arguably, could God and country provide such a powerful political platform. President Bush's born-again Christianity alone has probably guaranteed him a 30 percent bloc of the population, and that was abundantly clear in Wilmington. Mary Cales, an accountant from the nearby settlement of Sinking Springs, explained her fervor with a single concise sentence. "It's probably because I'm a Christian and he is," she said. This is Bush country.
Two-thirds of the county voted for Bush four years ago, and his grip is still firm. He was there to inspire, so that the conservative turnout in the countryside will match the Democratic legions in Ohio's big cities. And if there were undecided voters in the crowd they could not fail to have been impressed by the heady sense of being in the presence of extraordinary power. Most of the crowd stayed until Air Force One had taken off and the president disappeared once more into the clouds.