Reporters eating breakfast at the back of Air Force One on Thursday were served a rare treat: a visit from President Bush.
It was the kind of thing candidate George W. Bush did all the time in 2000.
The then-Texas governor regularly strolled back to banter with the journalists traveling with him. There were running jokes, even nicknames for the regulars.
But as president, Bush abruptly called a halt to such fraternizing.
Thursday was only the third time in his presidency that Bush trundled to the rear cabin to talk to the 15 journalists sequestered there. The last time was on Sept. 11, 2001.
And in the fevered environment of the current race, with the polls showing Bush struggling in some key states, the president’s decision to do something out on the campaign trail that he usually avoids raised questions.
What did the five-minute visit mean? Could the normally imperturbable White House be getting a little nervous?
Nothing was further from his mind, the president declared.
“I enjoyed myself last night,” he said as his plane flew high over the Southwest en route from Phoenix to Reno.
“The debate phase of the campaign is over, and now it’s a sprint to the finish. My spirits are high. I’m enthusiastic about my chances.”
But conversations with Republican operatives outside the campaign suggested possible anxiety within the president’s camp.
Even as stalwart a Republican as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, thought there might be uneasiness.
“If you don’t have some anxiety you are not in touch with reality,” he said.
For one thing, Gingrich said, there are more wild cards in this election than in most previous campaigns, including a surge in new voter registrations and the explosion of spending by independent political groups.
“We don’t understand this election. No one does,” he said.
After the GOP convention, Bush enjoyed a significant lead over Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry. But recently it has eroded. A major reason was believed to be the president’s showing in the first presidential debate Sept 30, in which he appeared peevish.
Bush’s performance in the subsequent debates improved, most analysts concluded, but so far he has not regained his dominant position. Most national polls indicate the two candidates are in a dead heat. More worrisome for the Bush camp, the president’s standing has slipped in battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where recent polls suggested Kerry was leading.
“Although the president did better in the final debate, I think the debates as a whole are going to be viewed as a turning point for Kerry,” said Marshall Wittmann, a former Senate GOP staffer who is now a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
“Kerry was on the ropes when he went into the first debate and now he emerges as a very serious threat.”
One senior Republican strategist not affiliated with the campaign said he began to think the Bush camp might be nervous when it launched a hard-edged ad that mischaracterized Kerry as describing terrorism as a “nuisance.”
“I would describe that as almost flailing,” the strategist said. “They went from having a very buttoned-up message where it was very defined, very provable, and it has consistently gotten more high-pitched, more shrill and less documentable.
“That to me is a very defensive position, as opposed to offensive.”
In addition to the president’s unusual appearance in the press section of Air Force One, senior Bush advisors who customarily do not return phone calls from reporters or conduct interviews are increasingly available.
In the last two weeks, campaign strategist Karl Rove has been making nearly daily visits to the press filing center during campaign stops, not just to serve up sunny assessments of the race but to play practical jokes on reporters.
Likewise, senior advisor Karen Hughes has frequently spent as much as 45 minutes with reporters, even while the president was talking on stage.
“Everybody is a little on edge,” said a senior House Republican strategist. “But I don’t think they are viewing it as widespread erosion. By the middle of next week you might have a better idea.”
Reynolds reported from Washington and Chen from Reno. Times staff writers Richard Simon, Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook contributed to this report.