West Wing Story: Fast Journeys With George

George W. Bush wrapped up his civic lesson today. Now it's time for the exam. In each of the fifteen states where Bush campaigned over the last five days, he has admonished Americans to do their civic duty. "You have an obligation to vote. You have an obligation to America," he told them, striking a non-partisan pose. Then he'd pause and deliver the political punch line: "But when you get in that voting booth, I've got some suggestions for you."

Whether voters take them or not will soon become clear. But Bush's get-out-the-vote effort has been intense. With key elections coming down to tiny margins, voter turnout has rarely been more important. And the president has been central to the Republicans' voter turnout strategy. "I'm urging all people across this country to vote," Bush said after casting his ballot at the Crawford fire department this morning. Dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and a leather jacket, he waved off reporters' questions about the elections.

Usually "political events" (paid by the party) are sandwiched between "official events" (paid by the taxpayer), like a meeting with firefighters or a tour of a factory. There has been no such pretense--or padding-- in this full-throttle campaign swing. This last trip was pure politics. On Monday, Bush whizzed through four states with tight races: Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and most importantly, Texas. The trips were so fast that he had to wait for the press to catch up with him. His event in St. Charles, Missouri lasted less than an hour. In Arkansas, he never left the airport; the event was in a hangar.

At every stop, Bush ever so slightly tailored his well-worn campaign speech for the hometown crowd. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for example, Bush made sure to weave in a reference to ethanol--a sop to farmers. And he gave higher billing to prescription drugs for seniors in the state with the second oldest demographics in the country. Typical Iowans sat behind the president as he spoke. In the handpicked crowd of about sixty there was only one African American. That man was sitting where the camera could see him just over the president's shoulder.

The event in Bentonville, Ark ., was no less staged: Air Force One was parked on a dime, framed perfectly by the airport hangar door. Like every president before him since there was an Air Force One, the White House uses the plane as a campaign tool. Inside the hangar, Senate hopeful Tim Hutchinson reminded the audience that 22 years ago that day Ronald Reagan was elected president. He praised Bush for following in Reagan's footsteps.

That may not be a good omen. Reagan, despite heavy campaigning, lost seats in the House to the Democrats during his first mid-term election. The White House is setting itself up for modest gains at best today. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer described this as "a year in which there is no overwhelming powerful domestic or international issue that's single most in any race."

In other words: If Republicans do badly, the Bushies blame "local factors." And if they just break even, Bush will claim victory. "He is hopeful that [Republicans] will be able to break the historical trend which so clearly runs against incumbent presidents in their first mid-terms," Fleischer said of the president yesterday. The GOP has acted unconcerned about any loss taking a toll on Bush in 2004. They like to point out that Reagan won re-election in a landslide even after midterm losses for his party.

Reagan, of course, fought--and eventually won--the Cold War. Bush has a very different war on his plate. As he has done at all of these campaign stops, he took the opportunity Monday to explain his case against Saddam Hussein. Ironically, it was on his home turf (and his wife's alma mater) Southern Methodist University, that he encountered the most anti-war sentiment of his five-day tour. At his last campaign event in Dallas, about one hundred protestors greeted the president. As he spoke in the SMU gym a couple people in the balcony unfurled a "No War in Iraq" banner. It was quickly ripped down and they were drowned out by chants of "U.S.A., U.S. A." Bush recovered. "That's what we're here to talk about: How to turn out the vote!" he insisted. At least for one more day.