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On the stump, Bush slows pace to his liking

DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. -- The presidency may be hard work, as President Bush said several times during the first debate. But his campaigning these days appears much less so, with a relatively moderate travel schedule and an unusually narrow list of targeted travel states.

Always fond of returning to his own bed at the end of the day, Bush has spent six out of the last seven nights at the White House, stepping off the campaign trail some days in time to catch the baseball playoffs. This weekend -- less than two weeks before the election, typically a time for frenzied barnstorming -- Bush is planning to spend two consecutive nights far from any battleground, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Until Election Day, he is making some curious stops for an incumbent locked in such a close race -- traveling to the largely Democratic state of Pennsylvania three times in two weeks, for example, while avoiding the close battleground of Ohio, except for making a stop today, his first since Oct. 2.

According to some Republicans, the odd schedule, which does not quite match the states where Bush's prospects are best, is reminiscent of his campaign travel four years ago, when Bush stopped in California and New Jersey in the final days of what turned out to be a closely contested race.

Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts holds roughly the same number of campaign events each day as does Bush (between two and four), but Kerry has spent most nights on the road and is planning to campaign both weekends before Nov. 2. Given the intensity of the campaign so far and the neck-and-neck nature of opinion polls, the lack of urgency in the Bush campaign is remarkable.

Bush's pace is almost certain to intensify next week, but for the moment the Bush calendar seems to reflect a high level of confidence among his campaign officials that the president is striking just the right note, at the right speed -- bolstered by his consistent if narrow lead in national polls over the last three weeks.

"The president has a full-time job as a wartime president," said Reed Dickens, a spokesman for the Bush campaign. "He's also a full-time candidate, and he does both effectively. That's contrasted against a senator who has missed almost all the Senate votes in a year when he was trying to run for president."

It is impossible to correlate a candidate's travel schedule with his ability to win votes, but it is an article of faith in politics that visiting a targeted region helps draw support, generating mostly positive local news coverage and making local residents feel valued. Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew Research Center, said that the local news coverage is especially valuable in an environment where three-quarters of voters get their political news from TV, and one-fifth of that group relies on local broadcasts rather than cable or the major networks.

"That's a lot of people," Kohut said. As a result, he said, "It's hard to figure why they would lighten up at this point. I certainly wouldn't be that confident with his position in the polls at this time."

Donna Brazile, Democrat Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, said Bush appears more interested in reaching out to groups of voters -- women, say, or rural and deeply religious Americans -- than in attempting to influence his standing state by state.

"This is a game of chess, not checkers, so you can't look at one move without saying how it fits into the overall plan," Brazile said. "Bush is not campaigning to win states anymore, but to win particular groups of voters who may be undecided."

But Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and a longtime observer of Bush's political career, said the choice to avoid a frantic campaign schedule is partly a result of the president's desire to remain well-rested.

"He needs R and R to be happy, to be comfortable, and it's very important to him for him to be at his best," Buchanan said. "The way he does that is to watch a game once in a while and to sleep in his own bed."

In addition, a break-neck pace isn't necessary in modern campaigns to get out their message. While Richard Nixon drove himself to exhaustion in his effort to visit all 50 states in the 1960 presidential campaign, only about 15 states are truly in play these days, and no more than an event or two a day is necessary to get a candidate's message out in all of them, Buchanan said.

"Really all you need is one or two photo ops a day to make all the papers or all the networks. I don't think confidence is what's driving this at this point. I think they're running scared," he said of the Bush campaign.

Thus, it is the quality rather than the quantity of campaign stops that matters most. But there, too, Bush campaign officials have made some unconventional choices.

Four years ago, Bush campaign strategists sailed into the final week brimming with confidence -- some would say overconfidence -- saying they would win more than 300 Electoral College votes and remain in play in heavily Democratic places like New Jersey. Bush spent several days in California and New Jersey at the end, relinquishing precious time that in retrospect would have been better spent in closer battlegrounds, such as Florida.

Despite that, Bush returned to New Jersey this week, traveling to a Philadelphia suburb to deliver a major national security address Tuesday. It was his only public appearance that day. Bush also made a long-shot foray to Oregon after the third debate in Tempe, Ariz.

Yesterday, on his 40th visit to Pennsylvania, Bush made two stops, a schedule that saw him leave the White House just before noon and put him back home by 6:30 p.m. Although he spends tonight in Florida, where he will campaign all day tomorrow, Bush is scheduled to be in Crawford tomorrow and Sunday nights. Next week, he is expected to spend three nights at the White House, not leaving for a solid stretch of overnight stops until the Friday before the election.

His pending stops on the way to Nov. 2 include possibly one more visit to New Hampshire, where he has not been since Oct. 1 and where polls show Kerry with a tangible advantage.

Bush appears to be playing the electoral map as much to keep Kerry on the defensive as to shore up his own voters, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. But Bush's recent lack of attention to Ohio is perplexing, given how important the state is to his chances. The Bush camp may have grown frustrated with the fact that Kerry caught up to the president there despite Bush's frequent visits, Berry said.

In Pennsylvania, the Bush campaign realizes that the state is crucial if Ohio or Florida is in doubt, Berry said. Those three states represent the biggest prizes among the swing states. Many observers believe that the candidate who takes two of them will win the election.

"Should they not carry Ohio or Florida, they absolutely have to have Pennsylvania, and the only way they can hope to have those electoral votes is to do an all-out push there," Berry said. 

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