The leader of the free world bounds onto the stage with the speakers blasting vintage Van Halen. This is a shock to the crowd. For more than an hour, the White House advance crew has been piping in a standard array of contemporary country, red-blooded barroom ditties by Darryl Worley ("Have you forgotten when those towers fell?"), Toby Keith ("A little less talk and a lot more action") and Alan Jackson ("Where I come from, it's cornbread and chicken"). The music long ago blurred into the background, in the same way that one becomes used to the smell of manure from the slaughterhouse across the street, where more than 2,000 cows meet their maker every day.
But George W. Bush deserves an entrance fit for a president. So the opening riffs of the 1991 smash single "Right Now," from the album "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge," overwhelm the Island Grove Events Center, and thousands of adoring Republicans go nuts. They wave blue and red pom-poms, hoot and holler, and pump cowboy hats in the air as the commander in chief struts to the podium. Just moments earlier, a 20-foot screen played a live feed as his helicopter, Marine One, landed outside, in a parking lot ringed for security with Wal-Mart tractor-trailers. The Republican candidate for state treasurer, Mark Hillman, had told a joke about shooting down a plane with Democratic Sen. John Kerry on board. "Sure as hell wouldn't be a great loss," he offered as the punch line. And Colorado Republican Party chairman Bob Martinez followed by warning everyone about the "bitter partisanship" of Bush's "liberal enemies."
Bush is, to say the least, amid a friendly crowd. "It is good to be in a country where the cowboy hats outnumber the ties," he shouts out, wearing rolled-up shirtsleeves. In recent months it has been easy to forget that Bush won two presidential elections by outperforming his wooden Democratic opponents on the stump. As tongue-tied as he appears at press conferences, as hollow as he sounds when he gives yet another policy address on the Iraq war, Bush can still kick ass on the trail. "I understand something about ranching and farming," he assures the crowd, his Western drawl apparently amplified by the surroundings. "You might remember that I was raised in west Texas."
For the past week, Bush has been stumping around the country in the few voting districts where sagging approval ratings have not yet sunk his effectiveness. He has visited places named Perry, Joplin, LeMars, Billings and Elko, a Nevada desert town of 17,000 with at least five brothels that is a three-hour drive from any bigger city. The White House press corps follows closely behind, guaranteeing a steady stream of fresh tape of the president for the cable news channels. Perhaps more importantly, however, the visit guarantees an influx of Republican volunteers to work the ground game as the midterm election campaign enters its final days.
As the president speaks, party functionaries set up more than 100 cellular phones on 10 long tables in the back of the room. "All of the people, when they get their tickets, were asked to sign up for the final four days," explains Guy Short, the chief of staff for Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican who is running a tight reelection campaign in Greeley. "It's certainly a boost. The excitement has been great."
Next to each disposable Nokia phone, there is a call sheet and a script. Each name and phone number is bar-coded so completed calls can be scanned into the central Republican database, as part of what is surely the most efficient get-out-the-vote operation in human history. "We fully expect to outperform final expectations by anywhere from three to seven points," boasts Bryant Adams, the spokesman for the Colorado GOP. If he is right, Musgrave will defeat her Democratic opponent, Angie Paccione, in a walk.
According to Short, the Republican ground machine has already scored gains in the district. Through Wednesday, Short says, 92,000 voters, or about a third of the 2004 vote, had already filed for absentee ballots or voted early. Of that group, he said, the Republican-to-Democrat spread was running five points ahead of voter registration, suggesting a clear advantage by Musgrave heading into Tuesday's election. If this pattern is repeated across the country, Democrats might awaken Wednesday to a very narrowly divided Congress, far from the 20- or 30-seat margin of victory that some party faithful expect.
"Go from this hall and turn out the vote," the president commands his faithful. "Find your friends and neighbors and get them to the polls. And come Election Day, we'll have a great victory and the country will be better off for it. God bless. May God bless America." Then Bush steps from the stage into the crowd's outstretched hands, as his Secret Service detail clears the path. The White House DJ throws on some Brooks and Dunn, from their 2001 album, "Steers and Stripes." "Only in America," the country duo croons, "where we dream in red, white and blue/Yeah, we dream as big as we want to."
Now that the president has been to Greeley, the Republican faithful are certainly dreaming big. A couple of dozen people take their places at the cellphone bank and begin dialing. "I just think this is a critical election," explains Sandy Streich, a registered nurse from nearby Loveland. "I think one speaker put it so wonderfully: 'Democracy is not a spectator sport.'"
She reads from the script into the phone, cupping her hand to hide the music still blaring out of speakers. "This election is extremely close and your vote for the Republican team could make all the difference."
On a sunny morning in the Western plains, just 36 hours from Election Day, truer words could not have been spoken.