Race for the White House: Patriot games as Bush goes to look for America: John Lichfield hits the road with a wounded President who is desperately trying to find a new rope to hang the Arkansas Governor

HOW MUST the President feel as he looks down from the windows of Airforce One, the ultimate executive toy, on to the autumn-tinted fields of Wisconsin? What does George Bush think about as his vast motorcade glides past shopping malls garish enough to be visible from Mars? How does he contemplate his future as he looks at the white clapboard farms and the red barns and the hundreds upon hundreds of geese in bomber formations, heading south for the winter?

'Time's getting on, darn it; election's only just over four weeks away; and the polls say I'm staring defeat in the face; and it's simply not fair. I won the war - two wars if you include the cold one. And it's guys like me who are meant to be president. That other guy - two other guys if you include Ross Perot - they're not fit to wipe my shoes.'

But why speculate? Mr Bush's stream of consciousness can frequently be heard on the public record. Here is an off-the-script chunk from a presidential stump speech in New Jersey last week.

'Look, I'm the first to admit - everybody's human. When I make a mistake I admit it. And I've made mistakes. But I believed then that I - putting that aside, that I've been a good president. We've tried - Barbara and I have tried very hard - I've tried very hard to be a good leader . . .

'And let me say this: let somebody else tear America down. I am proud to have worn the uniform of the United States. I had to make some very tough decisions as president, particularly when you have to send someone else's son or daughter to a war. That is a tough decision to make. But we did it and, in the process, we redeemed America as the strongest, fairest, most decent nation on the face of the Earth.'

If Bill Clinton loses the election (as he still might), he should blame the volunteers from his own campaign who dressed up in chicken suits to turn up at Bush rallies, teasing the President for his reluctance to debate. The chickens finally brought out the President's fighting instincts last week. (At one rally in Michigan, the President of the United States spent several minutes haranguing a man dressed as Big Bird.)

Until then, Bush people say, the President had been 'supremely confident' that he would win, whatever the polls said. For 'supremely confident', other Bush people say, read 'disbelieving and depressed'. Either way, he cannot believe the American people would dump someone like him, born to lead, for a dope-smoking, draft-dodging, over-intellectual bumpkin from Arkansas.

Abruptly, last week, there was a tangibly renewed confidence in the whole Bush camp: generated by Mr Bush's new, chicken-fried energy; by the campaign's sudden initiative on the debate issue; and by the re-entry of the bat-eared Texan billionaire, Ross Perot.

The conventional wisdom - wrong at every turn so far - is that Mr Perot hurts Mr Bush in Texas, Florida and the South. He hurts Mr Clinton in California and the North-east, and Mr Clinton still wins. The Bush campaign disagrees. It welcomes Mr Perot as a boulder thrown into a placid pond. He muddies Mr Clinton's image as the only available agent of change. He allows Mr Bush to be presidential in debates, while the two would-be presidents skulk around his ankles.

All this is plausibly menacing for the Clinton campaign. And yet, and yet.

The President's difficulties remain immense. Discount, if you wish, the horse-race polls showing Mr Clinton 9 to 17 points ahead (even with Mr Perot in the race). The small print of the polls is deadly for the President. He has not risen above 42 per cent in any poll since March. His absolute disapproval ratings, or 'hard negatives', were in the high forties in polls last week. In a Gallup-CNN poll on Thursday, 48 per cent said there was 'no chance' they would vote for Mr Bush. 'To any political physician,' a Republican analyst said, 'those are the symptoms of a mortally sick candidate.'

A typical presidential day on the road last week captured the ambivalence: recharged energy, yes, but only a shadow of the brutally efficient 1988 Bush campaign.

OSHKOSH AIRPORT: A young man in suit and serious spectacles is handing out roughly lettered placards to the crowd, to make the President's welcome seem more spontaneous on local television. 'Really now, this hasn't been stage-managed,' he says. 'These things just happen.' This is a fervently Republican part of Wisconsin, least Clinton-leaning of the 10 states won by Michael Dukakis in 1988. Big Republican majorities are needed here to counter the Democratic hordes in Milwaukee and Madison. As we wait for the President to emerge from Airforce One, David Ristau, a 50-year-old nuclear consultant, admits local Bush-fever is less intense than it might be. 'A lot of people are kind of sitting on the fence. I'm certainly not. But others are waiting, and come election day they'll pull the lever for Bush. At least we hope so.'

Mr Bush emerges from the plane with his stiff-legged walk and awkward bonhomie. He faces ranks of country police officers, the kind with jowls and cowboy hats, as played by Rod Steiger. As he listens to the droning speeches - Wisconsin County Sheriffs Association for Bush - his attention wanders and his face settles into a grey, anguished, grin-grimace. The President of the US, the most powerful elected official in the world, looks for a moment like an old man far from home.

He speaks, hand in pocket, a petulant shake of the head as he makes a point, stabbing Bill Clinton with a misleading fact. (Part of the present Bush repertoire is to paint Arkansas as a criminals' paradise. The President of the 'fairest, most decent nation' on earth omits to mention that Arkansas has a remarkably low crime rate for a Southern state.)

FOND DU LAC, 20 miles to the south: a huge rally has assembled in the centre of town. About half are below voting age. Many others leave as soon as Mr Bush begins to speak. They came to see the President; not to hear him.

Repetition is the key to successful campaigning. In the Bush camp, failure has bred failure. One strategy has been discarded after another: family values; Hillary Clinton; the draft; the Bush economic plan. Now, finally, the Bush campaign has settled into a steady and more complex pattern, weaving strands into a rope to hang Mr Clinton: the economy is not as bad as it seems; America is the envy of the world; we won the Cold and Gulf wars; Clinton is a draft-dodging liberal who taxes beer and babies, and not truly American (he even studied at a foreign university - Oxford).

In Fond du Lac, the President tangles himself occasionally in a Bushism: 'The ignorant mind is too often a fresh face. The ignorant mind is too often . . . a young mind is too often something you can lose.' But the standard Bush stump speech, Model IV or V, is a horribly effective thing: playing on American pride, reverse-snobbery and racism, and, of course, fear of taxes.

'And he (Clinton) raised the gas tax and he taxed mobile homes and cable TV and, just for good measure, he threw in a tax on beer. Now how do you like that one?'

Crowd: Booo.

The President: 'I didn't think you guys would like it.'

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY: Another state, another airport, another group of cops-for-Bush. This time they are city policemen, as seen in Hill Street Blues, variously fat, scruffy, scrawny, moustachioed, long-haired, all with caps pulled firmly down over dark glasses. The President, in gaberdine overcoat, sniffing into hanky, is awarded a drug-fighting medal. It falls on to the tarmac.

The motorcade drives to a union hall 10 miles away to receive the cheers of the only union local (branch) in the nation to endorse Mr Bush. Why? It is a Republican-controlled branch of the building workers' union. Mr Bush stands on stage with a line of union leaders resembling extras from The Godfather, Part IV.

There is a very male atmosphere: baseball caps, stubble, raucous yells. Why is Tom Oliviera, 34, voting for Bush? 'I think he's an OK guy. We've had the Republicans in a long time. We've had a lot of good years in construction. We've been picking up again. I personally think he's gonna win Jersey.'

Another union member, more honest: 'Our leadership decided that way, and I just have to go the way the leadership decides.' What does he like about George Bush? 'What do I like about him? What do I like about him? I don't really like him that much. I don't like anything about him. Just say I'm undecided right now.'

(Photograph omitted)

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