WILMINGTON, Ohio – Marine One’s bright headlights were still on when the presidential helicopter rolled up to a hangar here at daybreak for the final, and one of the longest, campaign days of George W. Bush’s political career.
Six states. Seven rallies. Nineteen hours. Six airplane flights. Two helicopter rides. Voters yelling his name.
Bush’s campaign schedule Monday was more grueling than any day of the 2000 race.
That year, one day before the election and hours before voters across the country would determine his future, Bush was living his own campaign theme song, a twangy tune that begins “Sun comin’ up ….”
At dawn, noisy supporters in western Ohio, including some who woke up at 2 a.m. so they could see the president, screamed and waved “Buckeyes for Bush” signs.
“There is nothing like an early morning rally in the great state of Ohio!” Bush said, aware that no Republican ever has won the presidency without it. After the speech, first lady Laura Bush passed out postcards of the president’s dog, Barney, to people in the crowd.
In Ohio and Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa, New Mexico and Texas, Bush was carrying a message of hope, a prosperous economy, the spread of freedom in other nations and his pledge to be relentless in fighting terrorists. He took a few jabs at his opponent, Democratic Sen. John Kerry, but they weren’t as stinging as they had been in recent days.
The main message of the day was urging supporters to get out and vote.
“I’m here one more time to ask for your vote and ask for your help,” Bush said on his twenty-third presidential trip to Des Moines, Iowa. “I’m asking you to go to your friends and neighbors and tell them we have a duty in our country to vote. Go to our fellow Republicans, wise independents and discerning Democrats and tell them if they want a stronger America, a safer America and a better America, to put me and (Vice President) Dick Cheney back in office.”
Bush showed no worries about the latest polls, which showed him tied with Kerry.
“We’re coming down the homestretch and I feel great,” he told reporters at a military airfield west of Pittsburgh.
Aides described him as nostalgic, “having the team around for the last time,” said advertising consultant Mark McKinnon.
Many of the advisers with Bush on Monday were with him on the eve of the 2000 election, when they made five stops in five states. Campaign spokesmen said Monday was Bush’s longest campaign day during a general election.
To break some of the tension, Bush drank a vanilla milkshake on Air Force One that a staffer picked up at Culver’s Custard in Milwaukee. He chatted with Curt Schilling, the World Championship Red Sox pitcher who, despite an injured ankle, showed up to introduce Bush at two events and ride on the president’s plan.
Bush also played gin rummy with some advisers on each leg of the trip.
On the way back to the airport after an event in Burgettstown, Pa., a van in the motorcade blew a tire, forcing its passengers to pile into Pennsylvania State Police cruisers pulling up the rear. The caravan never slowed, prompting Bush adviser Karen Hughes to remark that the campaign was such a “well-oiled machine” that even a blowout can’t stop it.
Rain dogged Bush through the upper Midwest for most of the day, and he, his wife and twin daughters arrived to biting cold in New Mexico. Bottles of water froze near the stage.
“We’re comin’ down the stretch, and there’s no better place to come than Albuquerque, N.M.,” Bush said, his voice holding strong at his sixth speech of the day, despite weeks of punishing campaigning.