SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – The strip malls, mom-and-pop restaurants and big-box stores are usually just part of the blurred landscape President Bush sees from his limousine when he sweeps into town. For three years, he and his motorcade blew past it all.
But this election year, Bush has taken a sudden interest in the people and places in between the airport and his speech sites.
Monday marked the fourth time in 2 weeks in which Bush and the rest of his motorcade pulled over for a "spontaneous" visit with some local citizens.
This time, it was Bass Pro Shop Outdoor World, a sporting emporium where Bush schmoozed about 100 customers in the shoes, socks and fishing supplies aisles.
"Which way to the worms?" the president asked.
Last week, it was Sticky Fingers restaurant in Charleston S.C.; Jan. 29, it was Swan Chocolates in Merrimack, N.H.; Jan. 22, it was the Nuthin' Fancy Cafe just outside Roswell, N.M.
"It's a good opportunity to visit with Americans and get some good food," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. Or, in Missouri, to get some worms.
The stops do allow Bush to mingle with ordinary citizens, but they are hardly spontaneous. The Secret Service lays the groundwork days in advance, in cooperation with White House officials. The business owners know the president is coming, though the customers at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World didn't.
White House officials strain to recall when Bush last did such an "off-the-record" appearance before the custom abruptly became part of his routine last month. On a couple of occasions, he has dropped by the gas and coffee joint a few miles from his Crawford, Texas, ranch.
But today, nine months before the election, these visits have become a fixture of the president's travels, and a formula has emerged as to how they transpire.
The stops occur as Bush is heading from a speech to the airport.
They are shrouded in secrecy, omitted from his schedule. Even though the pattern has become clear, White House officials refuse to confirm they are taking place until the president is pulling into the parking lot.
Bush walks in and exchanges pleasantries with the proprietors. Then journalists are ushered in briefly to record the scene and ensure that a larger audience sees Bush mixing with ordinary people.
The president's new custom comes at a time when he is shadowing the Democratic presidential primaries, dropping into states just days after Democrats voted. The new "spontaneous visit" strategy guarantees Bush a little extra news media exposure in those states, where voters have heard a steady drumbeat of criticism directed at him.
Nicolle Devenish, who is communications director for Bush's re-election campaign, said the president's local stops often "prove most compelling to the local media."
Devenish, who oversaw White House relations with regional news outlets until last year, said, "Local TV and newspapers usually devote a good deal of coverage to a presidential visit. While they do as good a job as any national outlet at covering the official policy event or speech, they pay equal attention to the local angles of the trip."
Bush almost always jokes that the reporters covering him are overpaid, and should open their wallets while they are in the local establishment.
"Put some of your high-priced money right here to try to help the local economy," Bush said in New Mexico. "You get paid a lot of money, you ought to be buying some food here."
He never answers substantive questions from the reporters. At recent stops, Bush has shrugged off questions about weapons of mass destruction, the Democrats who want his job, homeland security spending and other topics.
"Thank you, this is not a press conference," Bush told inquisitive reporters in New Mexico.
"You're supposed to be thinking about what it means to start your own business, like these people here have done," he said in New Hampshire, deflecting a question about John Kerry.
Nor did Bush bite Monday when a journalist asked whether he was "fishing for votes" at the Bass Pro Shop Outdoor World.
"I'm here to buy some fishing gear," the president replied. He walked out with a rod, a reel, some spinner lures, fishing line and some artificial worms.