President Bush took a day off from the politics of national security Wednesday and went on a Southern charm offensive that included time with children, NASCAR drivers, devoted Republicans and some sweet tea.
Bush's return to his "compassionate conservative" roots came during a base-building trip to North Carolina, a state he won easily in both his presidential races. But even in the conservative South, many voters have grown unhappy with Bush's leadership with Iraq under continuing violence.
Bush did not mention those troubles while visiting with voters three weeks before Election Day, but focused on his education agenda and old-fashioned politicking with plenty of local flavor.
Noticeably missing on Bush's North Carolina itinerary were campaign stops with Reps. Charles Taylor and Robin Hayes, a pair of veteran Republicans facing spirited Democratic challenges that could help tip the balance of power in the House. He didn't go near their districts. Bush was to attend a fundraising dinner for the Republican National Committee at a private residence where no media coverage was allowed.
Rep. Howard Coble, who represents the district that includes the children's camp, told the News & Record of Greensboro this week that he wasn't sure what the political value of the visit would be.
"I'm not uncomfortable having him here," Coble told the newspaper. "I don't know that it helps. But it doesn't hurt and it might help. There are a lot of his supporters who are simply not happy with Iraq. I'm not happy about it. But that doesn't mean I dislike my president."
Bush greeted lunchtime diners at Stamey's, chatting into a cell phone that one man thrust into his hand. Then he ate a classic North Carolina lunch of barbecue pork and chicken, cole slaw, hush puppies, sweet tea and peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream.
At the school, Bush drew excited gasps from fifth grader Ta'kyria Woodard when he entered her class, and he leaned over and whispered in her ear to calm her. Then he went to the third grade computer lab and threw a presidential glare to silence some rambunctious boys. Turning to the cameras, Bush said, "Reminds me of my days in the class."
Bush's speech in the school's multipurpose room was the third event in as many weeks focusing on the classroom. Those speeches come as a series of school shootings in recent weeks have unnerved parents across the nation.
Bush's signature education bill, No Child Left Behind, is up for reauthorization next year. Congressional Democrats helped hand him a bipartisan victory with that law five years ago. But the politics have changed and a Democratic majority on Capitol Hill could make it tougher for Bush to get the law reapproved without increased funding and other work.
Bush said the school is an example of why No Child Left Behind should be renewed. He said the percentage of third graders reading at grade level increased from 46 percent to 76 percent in four years.
"I think it would be a huge mistake for the United States Congress not to reauthorize this important piece of legislation," Bush said. "And the reason I say that is because it's working. We have achieved concrete results."
Later, Bush visited Victory Junction Gang Camp for critically ill children. The camp was created by NASCAR driver Kyle Petty and his wife, Pattie, in memory of their son Adam. Adam Petty was killed six years ago in a racetrack crash at 19 years old.
The kids aren't at the camp during the week in the fall, but four children came in for photo opportunties with the president — fishing and repairing a mock-up NASCAR. Bush also posed for pictures with the NASCAR drivers who came in — Kyle and Richard Petty, Michael Waltrip and Jimmie Johnson.
An Elon University poll last month showed slightly more disapprove than approve of the president in the state, 49 percent to 45 percent.
Bush ended his trip with a $900,000 fundraiser for the Republican National Committee at the home of Louis DeJoy, CEO of New Breed Inc. It was closed to the public and the media, but the RNC said 620 people bought tickets.
While Bush has expressed complete confidence that Republicans will keep control Congress, Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday that the GOP will hold the Senate and has "a good shot at holding the House."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said any suggestion that Cheney's confidence has diminished was "over-parsing."