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    Bush goes with gut feeling in the heartland

    President skirts tricky questions on frenetic campaign trail

    Oliver Burkeman in Dubuque, Iowa
    Thursday October 28, 2004
    The Guardian

    If Karl Rove were nervous, he would never admit it. But as the Republican cavalcade ploughed through rainswept rural Wisconsin and Iowa this week, the shadowy chief architect of the Bush presidency could barely have been more ebullient.
    "We like playing offence. We're on the march," he said, his body language all fist-pumping energy, his yellow baseball cap bobbing with enthusiasm.

    At an early morning campaign stop in Onalaska, a Wisconsin farming town, questions about possible last-minute surprises from the Kerry camp received short shrift. "I like surprises!" he declared, grinning.

    With the nation so finely balanced, and with mounting bad news from Iraq, Mr Rove's confidence might seem audacious. But audacity is the very essence of George Bush's 11th-hour pitch to America's battleground states.

    His stump speech, fine-tuned for the closing days of the race, now makes no mention of the controversy over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

    Instead, he segues effortlessly from reflections on September 11 to a broad thematic message about the need to protect America and the inherent value of resolve.

    "We've fought the terrorists across the Earth, not for pride, not for power, but because the lives of our citizens are at stake," he told a crowd of more than 3,000 in Dubuque, by the banks of the Mississippi river, on Tuesday night.

    John Kerry had referred to the funding of the Iraq war as "a complicated matter," he reminded them. "My fellow Americans, there's nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat."

    Mr Bush exhibits a relaxed, intuitive connection with audiences outside the big cities. He never misses a chance to deride "liberal senators from Massachusetts," and the implication is clear: nitpicking arguments are for the east-coast liberal intelligentsia. Here, in the heartland, people know in their guts what really matters.

    "He says what he's going to do, and then, by God, he does it," said Rosean Wilson, a local Republican activist and the owner of a Chrysler dealership, speaking over the pounding country music playing before the Dubuque rally.

    "Kerry just waffles too much. It's all right for me to say, as a citizen, well, you know, maybe you're right about this, maybe I'm wrong about that. But if you want to lead the country, you need someone who doesn't waver."

    Mr Bush now exhorts every audience to "tell your friends and relatives" to go to the polls next Tuesday, and seeks to include even those who might have voted against Republicans in the past.

    "I need you to go to your friends and neighbours and remind them that we have a duty in this great democracy to vote," the president told the Dubuque crowd. "Don't overlook discerning Democrats when you get people going to the polls, by the way."

    Yesterday's polls showed no significant change in the deadlocked race: the Washington Post gave Mr Kerry a two-point lead at 50% to 48%.

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