The Road Show

George W. Bush is always on the lookout for a new running mate. Down on his Crawford ranch for summer vacation, the president likes to take his daily three-mile jog in the brutal Texas heat, and goads his staffers into coming along. Anyone who can keep up--choking on dust kicked up by the Secret Service all-terrain cart that tails him--is admitted to the Hundred Degree Club. Bush himself designed a T shirt for members, with a picture of an exploding thermometer on the back. So far, a few Secret Service agents and a few staffers, including Reed Dickens, a young press aide, have made the cut.

Those aides who don't run can work up a sweat chopping down trees. Like Ronald Reagan, Bush relaxes and recharges by playing cowboy, far from the coat-and-tie capital he proudly loathes. His 1,600-acre spread is thick with water-sapping cedars, and the president can't fell them fast enough in his effort to save the property's starving oaks. After his morning national-security briefing, Bush assembles a crew of staffers--deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin and personal aide Blake Gottesman are regulars--and trucks into the brush. Growling chainsaw in hand, the president grills his aides about their personal lives, and lets loose with blue jokes. "It's as close to five normal guys as you can get," remarks one participant dryly.

Yet even on vacation, Bush is never far from the litany of troubles that have crept up on him in recent months. Unassailable after September 11, he is now struggling to shore up a wobbly economy, reassure panicky investors and distance himself from corporate scandals. In foreign policy, he is deflecting criticism from European allies and even prominent members of his own party--including his father's national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey--who publicly doubt the wisdom of moving too quickly against Saddam Hussein. Bush is still popular (a recent CBS poll put him at a 65 percent approval rating, down from 74 percent in early July), but White House officials worry what might happen if support for the president begins to slide just as the fall congressional elections approach--giving Democrats a chance at taking back the House and keeping hold of the Senate. "We don't see optimism," says one official. "People are concerned about meeting their payroll... We need to do more."

One sign Bush is taking the troubles seriously: Karen Hughes is back. Just last month, the president's trusted aide and alter ego left the White House and returned home to Austin. Now she's once again a fixture at Bush's side. She no longer has her lofty title or fancy White House office; these days, the Republican Party picks up her salary. But she is still first among equals. At the ranch, the president's small clutch of traveling staff live dorm style, bunking together in a double-wide trailer on the grounds. Hughes gets A-list accommodations at the ranch guest house. When Bush walked down the steps of Air Force One on his travels last week, his aides--including top advisers Karl Rove and Josh Bolten--quickly ducked into waiting cars. But Hughes greeted well-wishers alongside Bush.

In her month away, Hughes spoke with Bush by phone nearly every day. Now, she has promised Bush she'll be with him on the road or in Washington every other week, acting as a "big picture" adviser. Already, she is spending a lot of time planning the president's appearances for the September 11 anniversary, trading e-mails with speech-writers over the tone of his remarks. He will speak in New York and is scheduled to visit Ground Zero, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania crash site. She'll also be on the road making speeches for Republican candidates. Hughes has been such a prominent presence that Bolten ribbed her with lyrics from a country-Western song: "How can I miss you if you won't go away?"

The president's aides privately refer to this summer as a "pivotal moment" for Bush, the kind of adversity test that can permanently raise or lower a president's stature in the eyes of the public. The political team is running the president through a series of carefully staged "Bush cares" events around the country that showcase his folksier, regular-guy side--and bypassing the cynical D.C. press corps in favor of often friendlier local media. Last week the "Home to the Heartland" tour began with Bush mingling with folks in a Milwaukee gym, shaking hands with a tiara-wearing beauty queen at the Iowa State Fair and posing in front of Mount Rushmore. Keeping Bush "real" is Hughes' specialty. She is determined to avoid the mistake of Bush Sr.--who took refuge on a fishing boat while the economy tanked. As Hughes puts it, "When you go to the Iowa State Fair and Mount Rushmore, you are doing the things Americans do on their summer vacations."

The week's signature event, the president's one-day economic forum in Waco, was designed to let regular folks know that Bush understands times are tough for them. The made-for-TV gathering, complete with shimmering backdrops created by a former ABC producer, featured Q&A sessions with a handpicked crowd of Americans. Flora Green, a feisty grandmother of 24, demanded Medicare reform. "Why should some bureaucrat tell me what to do?" she asked. Bush loved it. "Have you ever been to Washington?" he asked playfully. The crowd ate it up.

Bush aides say they came away from the forum with "27 new ideas" to rejuvenate the economy. Among them: upping yearly 401(k) and IRA contributions. But the list also included a number of old favorites from the GOP wish list, like cutting the capital-gains tax and allowing larger investment-loss write-offs. (Officials say that Bush, who until now has eschewed any new policy, is likely to push for several of these measures next month. Predictably, the national press wrote off the event as little more than a political ad for Bush. But the White House couldn't care less what the "East Coast elites" thought. "At a time when most of the American people aren't paying attention, they saw a president paying attention to the economy," says communications director Dan Bartlett. "The thematics came through crystal clear."

Iowa and Wisconsin may be where real Americans spend their vacations, but they are also states where GOP candidates are locked in tight campaigns, and at nearly every stop on the heartland tour, Bush will be headlining $1,000- to $25,000-a-plate fund-raisers. By the end of the summer, he'll rally for candidates in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Oregon and New Mexico, all states he needs to win in 2004. Pretty hectic schedule for a guy on vacation. Come Labor Day, Bush just might be looking forward to getting back to the White House, if only so he can sit down for an hour or two.