Two Visions, Two Styles in One Race to the Finish

Times Staff Writer

“Door knockers, this way!” a young woman yelled, directing some of the 17,500 people who were streaming into a local park on a faultless autumn Saturday. President Bush was due to arrive in three hours, and the “door knockers,” folks who had volunteered to canvass neighborhoods in the afterglow of his visit, were eager to claim the prize for their work: VIP seats in their own special bleachers, next to the stage.

The coveted seats put Ashley Johnsen so close that Bush might have been able to read the hand-painted “I Love George W” T-shirt she had made the night before. Johnsen, 16, was already volunteering at Bush-Cheney headquarters in St. Paul, but for a VIP seat and a chance to see the president up close, she eagerly signed up to do more. After the rally, she would knock on neighborhood doors for the president.

“We just love George,” she said. “These things need to be done. It makes a big difference in the campaign.”


That, in a nutshell, is one point of a George W. Bush rally. News reporters on the campaign trail serve the nation the latest nuance in Bush’s policies or his newest attack on his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry. But the president gives a second set of messages that rarely get reported -- messages that could prove equally potent in the race.

They are the lines in his speech and the leader-of-the-free-world atmospherics that fire up his fiercely loyal base -- and they are aimed at turning fans into foot-soldiers. A Bush rally is not filled with undecided voters; those people are not even invited. Instead, Bush speaks to the already decided, thanking them for what they have done and asking them for more.

“I can’t thank you enough for what you are going to do,” Bush recently told wildly cheering supporters in this Minneapolis suburb, many of whom had given up Minnesota Twins playoff tickets to be there. “I can see by the signs, and the size of this crowd, you have done a lot.

“But it’s what you’re going to do I want to thank you for. And that is, turn out the vote, get people to the polls.”

On a six-day campaign swing this month -- which took the president to the battleground states of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -- in settings including large parks and a performing arts theater, Bush pumped up a base that was overwhelmingly white and middle class. Every vote counts, he told the crowds. Every precinct is a swing precinct.

Kerry, according to the president and his surrogates, was a danger -- to world peace, to national security, to the pocketbooks of American families. And so supporters must do everything in their power to reelect Bush.


The powerful rhetoric hit home.

“I don’t want to say Kerry scares me,” said insurance agent Eric Larson, 45, of Eden Prairie, Minn. “But he does.”

Keeping a promise made before the event, Larson, his wife and their five children dashed away from Bush’s speech and headed out to knock on doors for the campaign.

Although the second week of October had brought daunting news for the president -- about Iraq, weak job creation and his performance in the debates, there was no hint of that on the campaign trail. There were no doubters at Bush rallies. The president fired up the faithful; they returned the passion.

“Goosebumps,” said Diane Berendsen, a 44-year-old Wisconsin mother of three, after hearing the president speak in Wausau, Wis. “I have no words.”

“Powerfully charismatic,” said her friend, Janet Matonich, 43. “This man is definitely a woman’s president.”


Enlisting Volunteers

At Bush events, the people who work the hardest for him are likely not only to get the best seats, but get a chance at headier rewards.


In Iowa, Susan Foster, a 31-year-old full-time Bush volunteer, was chosen to greet the president when he arrived at the 7 Flags Event Center in suburban Clive. Bush bounded out of his limousine, shook Foster’s hand and put his arm around her as they posed for a photo.

“I was trying to think of something intelligent to say,” said Foster, “and all I could pretty much get out was, ‘My mother and I pray for you nightly.’ ”

Republican operatives often say they have learned a lot from Democrats about local organizing. But they have done the Democrats one better: Now, wherever Bush makes an appearance, his campaign staff leverages the excitement of his visit to increase the ranks of volunteers.

A phone bank is usually operating near every rally. Along with the ubiquitous metal detectors, entrances are studded with volunteers recruiting for the GOP’s get-out-the-vote effort, which will focus intensively on the three days leading up to Nov. 2.

In Wausau’s Marathon Park, a former county fairgrounds set among tall evergreens, some of the 10,000 people who turned out agreed to work at phone banks inside a huge white tent. Volunteers who made 25 phone calls to registered Republicans would get a green dot sticker on their ticket, which would entitle them to stand close to the outdoor stage.

Two hours before Bush arrived, all 250 cellphones provided by the campaign were being used, and a line of perhaps 20 people waited patiently for their turn.


“A couple of phones have sprouted legs,” said Wisconsin GOP spokesman Chris Lato. “But not many.”

Inside the tent, Michelle Boylan, a 42-year-old hospital administrator, made calls with her three children, 11, 14 and 16. “We’re here because we think it’s important to keep President Bush in office,” said Boylan, whose husband is a public affairs officer at the American Embassy in Baghdad.

In Chanhassen, a row of yellow school buses had been rented to whisk Bush supporters from parking lots to the event site a mile away. But to get on a bus, the crowd had to get past Bob Swearengin, who was signing up folks to help get out the vote.

Swearengin, 45, had already surpassed his enlistment goal of 25.

“Have you done volunteer work before?” he asked Charles Kariniemi, a 24-year-old with spiky blond hair. “Try it, you’ll like it.”

“This isn’t binding, is it?” asked Kariniemi.

“No,” replied Swearengin, smiling. “You’ll just burn in hell if you don’t show up.”


Getting Down to Business

The president’s rallies sometimes feature Christian rock bands, and they usually end with loudspeakers blaring “Stars and Stripes Forever” as the president plunges into the front row to shake hands.

His entrance is always met with an explosive release of pent-up joy.

In Wausau, a helicopter that follows Bush’s motorcade gave away his arrival and whipped up the crowd. In Chanhassen, it was the pair of black-clad sharpshooters taking positions atop a nearby elementary school that sent a frisson through the park.


As soon as Bush bound into view, he shed his coat, rolled up his sleeves and got down to business. That simple gesture was not lost on the audience, particularly women, who warmed to Bush’s man-at-work vibe.

In Chanhassen, Bush thrilled the crowd by offering a new set of attacks on Kerry. The president ticked off objections to the Democrat’s record, following each one with the line: “He can run, but he can’t hide.”

Eagerly picking up Bush’s cue, thousands of voices rose above the president’s as they chanted the line along with him.

Sometimes, the enthusiasm led to awkward moments. In Wausau, people began to chant another line Bush has often used to mock Kerry’s stance on Iraq: “The wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Unfortunately, these were Kerry’s own words -- so, when the crowd began to sing them out, they seemed to realize that this sounded like an endorsement. They abruptly stopped.

No one is admitted to a Bush campaign rally, speech or town hall event without a ticket -- usually color-coded to denote proximity to the president. At the entrance, ticket holders are met by a list of forbidden items:


Guns, knives, umbrellas, homemade signs, noisemakers, picnic coolers, lawn chairs, video cameras, water bottles and newspapers (which can conceal hostile homemade signs).

Though not officially on the list, Democrats are not welcome, either.

The Wausau Daily Herald reported that an eighth-grade social studies teacher and her daughter were refused tickets to the free Bush rally when the daughter, head of a college Democratic group, was recognized by a Republican classmate.

“It would not be very seemly for the community of Wausau to leave a bad taste in the president’s mouth,” said campaign spokesman Kevin Hermening, according to the Daily Herald.

Rebecca Hinton, a 49-year-old Pennsylvania housewife who plans to vote for Kerry, was given a ticket to a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., event by a friend from her prayer circle. Hinton went because she wanted to see “a sitting president.” In the theater lobby, on her way out, she said she was disappointed by Bush’s speech. “I just know it was a complete distortion of the facts,” she said.

But, she added, lowering her voice so she wouldn’t offend anyone, “It’s his day, and I really don’t like talking about this now.”

In Chanhassen, the smell of sizzling deep-fried cheese curds and the sounds of children at play lent a county fair atmosphere to Bush’s “victory rally.”


The throng of 17,500 had grabbed up the prepared campaign signs -- “Doctors for Bush,” “Sportsmen for Bush,” “Veterans for Bush” -- and was anxious to wave them. Signs are freely dispensed at every campaign appearance, and crowds are urged to raise them high for photographers every time they cheer.

A series of increasingly negative speeches by local politicians culminated with the harsh words of Minnesota GOP Chairman Ron Ebensteiner. “Democrats,” said Ebensteiner, “are the party of hate, of anger. They are mean. They are part of the ‘hate America’ crowd. Their chief spokesman is Michael Moore.”

The Republicans booed.

As at every stop, campaign leaders drill into local Republicans the idea that their state, alone among the battlegrounds, holds the key to victory in November.

This was an especially appealing notion in Minnesota, which hasn’t voted for a GOP president since Richard Nixon in 1972. In times past, Republicans have joked that they lived in “flyover country.”

But Chanhassen City Councilman Brian Lundquist told the rally that “with each passing day, it becomes more likely that Minnesota will determine the outcome. We know the president would have won in 2000 if Minnesota had given him two more votes per precinct!” (Bush actually would have needed more than 14 additional votes per election precinct.)

When it was all over and Bush had been whisked away in his limousine, Ashley Johnsen went off to fulfill her commitment as a door knocker. Not everyone she called on was happy to see her. But that was OK. Being among fellow conservatives, all screaming their hearts out for the president, had inspired her.


“It was exciting to be surrounded by people that, like, all believe the same thing as you,” she said. “And it’s fun to hear everyone cheer him on, because you hear a lot of negative comments about him.... It made me want to get out there and get people to vote for him.”