WASHINGTON – President Bush misses a lot at his campaign rallies.
Pastors pray for him. Guitarists rev up the crowd. Ladies in purple shirts sing. Announcers announce, with gravity, over the loud speaker, "Ladies and gentleman, the president of the United States."
All before he gets there, just part of the warmup.
Candidates reach huge audiences through television, but there's still room for the kind of homespun political rally where supporters wave red-white-and-blue pompoms, applaud their favorite and gleefully boo his opponent.
As Bush dashes on stage, his supporters cheer him as enthusiastically as a game-winning touchdown. "Thank you for comin'," he says as he grabs a microphone and rolls up his sleeves.
It's much the same for John Kerry (search), his Democratic rival. The pep talks, the banners and balloons, the stage in a parking lot where cars are usually pulling in for a ball game.
Kerry doesn't have the backdrop of Air Force One landing at the local airport. He does have big-name stars, though.
Along with local bands, his recent warmup acts have included actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Sean Astin and singers Sheryl Crow, Jon Bon Jovi, Carole King and Tony Bennett.
By the time Bush arrives at a recent rally in an airplane hangar in Muskegon, Mich., his supporters have endured long lines at metal detectors, watched entertainment picked to please a president who won't see it and heard long-winded praise from politicians.
"Bush is a man who walks his talk," declares Gary Granger, west Michigan regional chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign. But Bush isn't walking in or talking just yet.
A singer sings the national anthem, everybody recites the Pledge of Allegiance and the Rev. Tim Ciccone, pastor of student ministries at Forest Park Covenant Church, prays — for Bush, for the troops, for Congress, for the weather.
"We pray that you will bless President Bush and keep him safe as he's on his way," Ciccone says. The crowd responds, "Amen."
Four women, dressed alike in shirts printed with large purple flowers, sing a patriotic medley that opens with: "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me. ..."
Next up is Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra (search). Trying to keep things local, he speaks of how he and his colleagues on Capitol Hill have encouraged the Agriculture Department to buy Michigan commodities.
"The asparagus farmers are happy," Hoekstra says. "Some of the kids who are part of the school lunch program aren't."
The praying. The singing. The asparagus. It's time for Bush.
The crowd erupts as the blue-and-white presidential aircraft comes to a stop right outside the hangar. Bush bounds down the steps and strides on stage.
His reception wouldn't have been so friendly at a recent Kerry rally in Philadelphia.
Nita Martin, who has two sons in the military, warms up the crowd by announcing, "I'm a registered Republican." She pauses for effect, and a couple of Kerry supporters in the audience boo. "And I'm voting for John Kerry!" she cries.
The crowd cheers.
Next up is Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who urges University of Pennsylvania students from out of state to register locally and provide crucial votes in the swing state.
"I want to see the greatest surge of registration between now and Oct. 4 here in the 27th ward where you Penn students live! I want to add three-, four-thousand votes to the rolls of the 27th ward!"
Sometimes it's tough for the politicians to connect.
In Lee's Summit, Mo., just outside Kansas City, Republican Sen. Kit Bond's material is a bit weighty for 8:30 a.m.
Bond recounts Senate votes on the war in Iraq and says President Clinton had challenged terrorists by firing "a few million-dollar missiles at $10 mud huts" in Afghanistan in 1998.
The senator finishes his talk with a call for "four more years," pausing after each word in hopes of getting the crowd to chant with him. The audience is slow to follow but comes to life when the theme song from the movie "Air Force One" blares from the sound system and Bush makes his entrance into the high school stadium.