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On trail, Bush reprises average-guy role

President aiming for folksy appeal

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. -- The crowd was warmed up by the time President Bush arrived, thanks to some country-tinged patriotic songs and two renditions of ''Deep in the Heart of Texas."

When the campaign caravan arrived in the parking lot of a plant that makes packing materials, Bush climbed from his bus with his sleeves rolled up, jacket and tie abandoned. With a homespun touch, he quickly had the crowd laughing about the ''nuances" of Senator John F. Kerry, his Democratic challenger.

As he has done in stop after stop this summer, Bush honed in on how Kerry explained his vote last fall on military funding -- by now, a well-worn Republican laugh line.

''He said he actually did vote for the $87 billion just before he voted against it," Bush said. ''I don't think people talk like that here.

''Then he said the whole thing is a 'complicated matter,' " Bush continued, extending the syllables of the last two words to draw a crowd reaction. ''There's nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat."

The Massachusetts Democrat has said his final vote against the bill was a protest move taken only after efforts failed to roll back recent tax cuts to help pay for the war -- and when it was clear his vote would not be decisive. But there is no room for such distinctions in Bush's stump speech these days, and the crowds -- mostly composed of prescreened Republican loyalists -- love him for it.

With the economy and the war in Iraq looming as liabilities, the president is turning on the folksy charm, hoping to sharpen the contrast with his Democratic opponent. Bush often mentions his Texas upbringing, the importance of religious values, and his mother still telling him what to do. Although he is the son of a president and grandson of a senator, Bush is nevertheless able to convey a sense of wide-eyed wonder about being in the White House. He gives a boyish smirk when telling a story about having dinner with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan.

''Laura and I like him a lot -- he is the prime minister of Japan," Bush said last week at a question-and-answer session in Oregon. ''He's a good guy.

''And you know, we're eating Kobe beef there in Tokyo -- pretty fancy," he said, to growing laughter. ''You get good food when you're the president."

Bush has long used his ability to connect with regular people on the campaign trail, said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin who has observed Bush closely since he was governor of Texas.

''One of the things that always impressed me about Bush is that he's a New England blue blood, yet is able to portray himself as a down-home country boy," Buchanan said. ''I think it's smart of him to do it, because if you can charm someone, you get them to think less about whether they agree with you. It's probably his best bet."

The regular-guy approach worked well for Bush in 2000, where he came across as looser and more likable than his Democratic opponent, Al Gore. But this campaign could be different -- dominated more by issues than personalities, some Democrats say.

''I don't think it can mask or hide the concerns on top issues of voters," said Michael Feldman, a Gore aide in 2000. ''If you don't believe that we are pursuing the correct policy in Iraq, explaining it in a folksy manner is not going to change your mind."

During 3 years in the presidential bubble, Bush downplayed the man-of-the-people style. He made fewer off-the-cuff remarks, striving to maintain a tone that seems presidential. Now, as campaign mode has begun in earnest, his attempts to connect with real people sometimes fall flat. He drops arcane tax-code terms such as ''subchapter S corporations" and ''C corps" into his addresses. He often tells crowds about a time he was ''working the rope line," a term insiders use for politicians' hand-shaking and baby-kissing before and after events.

Bush and Kerry both had patrician upbringings, but the president has been better able to connect with average Americans on a personal level. Outside Philadelphia on Tuesday, Bush told the crowd that he is campaigning in the area so much because ''I like my cheesesteak Whiz with," a phrase locals know to mean a steak-and-cheese sandwich with Cheese Whiz and onions.

Contrast that with Kerry, who last year became the butt of jokes when he tried to order a Philly cheesesteak with Swiss.

Bush also uses populist language that seems out of place for a Republican millionaire, as when he criticizes Kerry's tax plan.

''You know what happens with this 'tax the rich' deal," Bush said yesterday at a question-and-answer session in Hudson, Wis. ''That's why they've got accountants and lawyers, so the rich figure out how not to pay, and you get stuck with the tab."

Dale Babbitt, a retired trucker from Eau Claire, Wis., who was at the rally yesterday in Chippewa Falls, said he likes the fact that Bush occasionally misspeaks. It shows that he is a ''real person" who is not overly concerned about appearances, he said.

''He talks the way he is -- take me as I am," Babbitt said.

Globe correspondent Jessica E. Vascellaro contributed to this report. Rick Klein can be reached at 

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