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IN MICHIGAN

In closing days, Bush relying on his personal touch

Cites experience, lessons learned

SAGINAW, Mich. -- After the rock-star ovation died down, President Bush looked out on a sea of green and yellow cardboard W's yesterday and put a different side of himself on display.

A president who is not often described as introspective talked about the lessons he has learned after nearly four years in office. And a man who rarely places himself in the arc of American history made a connection to a pantheon of presidential greats.

"I've learned to expect the unexpected because history can deliver sudden horror from a soft autumn sky," Bush told 8,500 supporters in Saginaw, where ticket holders lined up for blocks before dawn to hear the president.

"As presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan so clearly demonstrate, a president cannot blow in the wind," Bush said. "A president has to make tough decisions and stand by them."

Bush campaign rallies often have the feel of revivals -- not only in the religious references sprinkled through the president's stump speeches, but also because of the intensity of his supporters' adoration. The crowds are screened to ensure that only Bush supporters attend, and Bush likes to tell them that "you have lifted my spirits" by attending.

In the campaign's closing days, Bush is using this atmosphere to relate to his supporters on a personal level and to reach undecided voters on qualities other than policy positions.

An afternoon rally yesterday in Westlake, Ohio, featured seating on a grassy hill, with people sprawled out on blankets as their children bounced in a giant inflatable jungle gym. At campaign events today, Bush plans to talk about ordinary citizens he has met during his presidency, to show how he approaches the job and how it affects him, campaign aides said.

With his personal words, Bush is not a distant president who confers primarily with a small group of aides, but the son of George and Barbara who is not afraid to acknowledge his shortcomings.

"I have been strengthened by my faith and humbled by its reminder that my life is part of a much bigger story," Bush said in Michigan. "Sometimes I'm a little too blunt -- I get that from my mother. Sometimes I mangle the English language -- I get that from my dad. But Americans have learned that when you disagree with me, at least you know what I believe and where I stand."

Campaign officials say they have long planned the shift in tone to the personal for the end of the campaign, to allow them to close the campaign on a positive note and to allow Bush's likability to shine. Many voters will make up their minds based on who they want in their living rooms for the next four years, said Scott Stanzel, a Bush campaign spokesman.

But Bush has not dropped his attacks on Kerry. His language on that front was sharper than ever yesterday, as he continued to mock Kerry as an indecisive liberal who would put the nation in peril by not aggressively confronting terrorist threats.

Indeed, Bush used the personal recollections yesterday to chide Kerry as someone who shifts positions, and to remind voters of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- a time Bush's leadership was less controversial.

His campaign yesterday played a video that first aired at the Republican National Convention to precede Bush's introduction in Saginaw. The video shows Bush consoling victims' family members and tossing a pitch at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series, just weeks after the attacks.

"I've learned firsthand how hard it is to send young men and women into battle, even when the cause is right," Bush said.

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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