On the buses: Presidential hopefuls hit the roads

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Obama's Coach Force One joins a tradition of US campaigning

Parked in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday morning was shiny confirmation that Governor Rick Perry of Texas was running for president, just as he had told us 24 hours before in South Carolina. It was his bus, a pretty nice toy, half in jet black, awaiting his arrival later in the day.

A battle bus is the must-have for a candidate for the White House. Thomas Dewey briefly wooed voters from a wheezing charabanc back in 1948; Ronald Reagan went Greyhound in 1980. But it was Bill Clinton who triumphantly left his nominating convention in New York in 1992 on board a bus that put the steering wheel at the heart of American campaigning.

Today the start of election season means the revving up of more single-deckers than a National Express depot. No candidate can be seen without one in campaign livery, some even before they have declared. Even Sarah Palin had wheels in Des Moines at the weekend – her "One Nation" coach – emblazoned with the Liberty Bell and script from the Constitution.

The nostalgic image of cross-country campaigning in the US, of course, is of the whistle-stop train. The most famous carriage, its back platform festooned in bunting, was the Ferdinand Magellan, especially for presidents seeking re-election. It was from the back of the Magellan that Truman famously held up the erroneous cover of the Chicago Daily Tribune, "Dewey Defeats Truman", in St Louis the day after voting in 1948.

The days of the train as a campaign-conveyance are now officially done. On Monday, America was introduced for the first time to the brand new presidential coach currently bearing President Barack Obama on his three-state tour of the Midwest. Call it Coach Force One. Since it's an official vehicle, it's jet black, without campaign logos, and enters an impressive roster of presidential transport.

Air Force One – officially whatever aircraft is carrying the president, but more often simply used to refer to the jumbo in which he most often travels - has long served as the most potent symbol of the American presidency beyond the White House. The first jet version, a modified Boeing 707, was delivered to President Dwight Eisenhower and served Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter and Reagan, whose administration placed the order for the two 747 wide-body jets that carry the commander-in-chief now. They are due to be replaced by 2017, either with 747-8s or possibly the 787 Dreamliner that is soon to come into service.

Then there is the presidential Cadillac and Barack Obama got a new one when he took office. Dubbed The Beast because of all the armour-plating and bullet-proof glass, it goes with him everywhere he goes when road travel is foreseen. Marine One, the presidential helicopter, is also a familiar sight. But until now there has been no presidential bus.

It is the Secret Service, it turns out, that ordered not one but two of the buses, one of which was wending its way into Iowa yesterday. The price tag was steep – $1.1m for each one assembled by the Hemphill Brothers Coach Company of Whites Creek, Tennessee – but necessary, officials contend, because it comes with the same security features as The Beast as well as much of the communications trickery found on Air Force One. It features windows and armour plating sufficient to repel a rocket propelled grenade.

For those charged with keeping the president safe, they have come none too soon. "We've been overdue for having this asset in our protective fleet," Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan noted. Recalling that first three-axle outing by Reagan, he added: "We've been protecting presidential candidates and vice-presidential candidates all the way back to the 1980s using buses during bus tours."

Certainly they will provide a fancier and safer ride. President Reagan's bus featured nothing more than a table near the front with seats facing it from each side where he and Nancy could sit down for interviews. The buses used by Mr Clinton in 1992 had no outside adornments beyond the symbol of Peter Pan, the company it was leased from. Inside, his bus was little different from the press bus.

The new fleet – the second new bus will be made available to whoever secures the Republican nomination next year – is certainly less visually diverting than those of the challengers. John McCain did most to turn bus into brand with his Straight Talk Express in 2008, which as well as bright exterior livery featured a plush interior with curving couches and space to erect a rolling TV studio.

The result is a presidential bus that is almost sinister, the only colour coming from its red and blue flashing hazard lights. "If I saw that thing, I'd drive right off the road, get out my car, and beg the Lord for mercy," notes Keith Koffler, a veteran White House reporter who runs a blog, WhiteHouseDossier.com. "I fully expect Obama to get off the bus and instead of kissing babies say to them, 'Luke, I am your father'."

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