OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – The only campaign President Bush mentioned during his most recent visit to Tennessee was the war on terrorism.
But peace demonstrator Shelley Wascom saw a dual message in Bush's election year visit to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (search) in Republican-friendly East Tennessee last Monday.
"I think every stop between now and the election is political," she said.
Republican loyalist Susan Richardson-Williams, who attended the Oak Ridge event, insisted it was a presidential visit because there was no campaign fund-raising.
But she conceded, "Can you separate the two when you are in a campaign?"
Since beating favorite son Al Gore (search) in Tennessee four years ago, Bush hasn't let up. He's made three trips to the state this year, earlier visiting Knoxville and Nashville. Four, if you include a March trip to Fort Campbell, Ky., near Clarksville.
And he's sent surrogates. Vice President Dick Cheney to Chattanooga, first lady Laura Bush to Memphis and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to Nashville.
"That says to me that this is a battleground state," Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen said while hosting a fund-raiser for soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in Nashville as Bush visited Oak Ridge.
Political analysts are not convinced Tennessee is up for grabs.
"I guess (Bredesen) is just saying don't write Tennessee off," said Ed Cromer, editor of the Tennessee Journal, a weekly newsletter on state politics. "But what would you expect to him to say? What can he say?"
Bush isn't running scared in Tennessee; he's protecting his base of support, said George Korda, a Knoxville political analyst. With the Oak Ridge visit, Bush reached supporters on several levels — Tennesseans, Southerners and those strong on national defense. The president never mentioned Kerry.
"One of the first and foremost rules of politics is that you protect your base like a mother lion protecting her cubs. It is crucial, essential, all important," said Korda, who advises Republican candidates.
"And in a race that right now looks to be as close nationally as this one, the base, if any of it erodes for either side, (that candidate) is done for. They are just cooked."
It's a lesson Gore, a former Tennessee senator, failed to heed in 2000 when he lost his home state and its 11 electoral votes that might have made him president.
Bush beat Gore by a 51-47 percent margin four years ago in Tennessee.
A Middle Tennessee State University statewide poll in late February showed Bush holding a 4-point lead over Kerry, though statistically a dead heat. Less reliable polls since then suggest Bush's lead is much greater with three months before the Nov. 2 election.
"It may be they have some polls I don't know anything about and things are looking up for him," John Vile, chairman of the MTSU political science department, said of Kerry and the Tennessee Democrats. "But it looks to me like it is Bush's to lose."
Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, has spent little time in Tennessee — three short visits around the February primary.
Campaign reports tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics said Bush has raised $4 million in Tennessee to Kerry's $558,000, though both camps say they have raised more since then.
In Bush, Tennesseans "see a man who has cut their taxes, a man who cares deeply about the moral values they do and has the courage to stand up on those issues," state Republican chairwoman Beth Harwell said. "These are all issues that matter to Tennesseans.
"So on the issues of taxes and jobs and guns, George Bush is right," Harwell continued. "And the most important thing, quite frankly in today's world, is that he is right on the issue of security and protecting the homeland."
Bush reaffirmed that point in Oak Ridge. In a half-hour speech, he noted a half dozen times that "the American people are safer" because of his administration's campaign against terrorism and the invasion of Iraq — even though evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the pretext for the war, have not been found.
Kerry remains the default candidate for many voters in Tennessee and nationally, according to exit polls taken during the Democratic primary. They support him because he isn't Bush.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Tennessee is leaning to Bush and while it isn't solidly in the president's corner yet, it probably will be in November.
Only a Bush collapse — and only troubles in the war in Iraq may be a large enough issue to cause it — would drive Tennesseans to Kerry as part of a national landslide, Sabato said. The Volunteer State has voted for the presidential winner in every election since 1960.
So while Tennessee may not be a battleground state, it may be a bellwether.
"If Tennessee is even close, it is over. If we have a couple of polls that show a statistical tie between Bush and Kerry in Tennessee, the election is over. It is Kerry," Sabato said.
"So if he (Bush) starts showing back up here a lot there could only be one of two reasons," Korda said. "Either there is still (campaign) money to be found here or they are looking at 11 electoral votes that might, might have a chance of slipping away. Might."