Bush's Election-Eve Gamble

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Dusk had just turned to night when the voice of a young advance man boomed over the packed Dominion Energy Inc. hangar at Richmond International Airport: "Ladies and gentlemen, please focus your attention on the Southern sky, as Air Force One approaches."

And then, one of the greatest shows on earth. Serenaded by the theme from the movie Air Force One, 4,000 or so Republicans squealed as the Boeing 747-200B touched down, made a dramatic, leisurely pass by the open hangar bay, then momentarily disappeared from sight. President Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush, were winging back from five days in South America, where the headlines had been about a failed trade summit and the questions at his news conferences had dwelled on torture, Karl Rove and indictments. With the Virginia governor's race looking like one of the tightest in Commonwealth history, Bush was dropping in for an election-eve get-out-the-vote rally for Republican Jerry Kilgore, even though the pundits pointed out that the President's approval rating in the GOP stronghold was 30 points behind the Democratic governor, Mark Warner, who had advocated a tax increase and miraculously remained popular enough to plot a presidential bid.

Here, though, the President was king, if only for a day. The "I (heart) GW" signs were back—in red versions and blue versions. "Virginia is Bush country!" declared one of the many warm-up speakers, Deputy House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, the local Congressman. A few minutes after the plane disappeared from view, the red, white and blue lights of the 15-vehicle presidential motorcade—preceded and followed by police cars and motorcycles—zipped over the Tarmac toward the hangar. The President, who can be tired and cranky after an overseas foray, basked in the adulation, grinning, doling out 360-degree waves and giving his full-body chuckle as if someone were tickling him. As he waited for the applause to die down, he looked happier than he had any time since his triumphal post-election news conference a year and three days earlier. "We were just flying in from Latin America," Bush said, mischievously milking the crowd. "Decided to stop a little short of our destination!"

Gambling that he would take part of the blame for a Republican loss in Virginia whether he came or not, Bush pulled out all the stops, calling Kilgore "Governor" and kissing the ladies onstage. "I like a guy who loves his wife—I sure love mine," Bush said, to applause, standing in front of a huge "Victory For Virginia" placard. His 18 minutes of remarks laid it on thick, saying that Kilgore, who had been tortured in the press for his mountain twang, "doesn't have a lot of fancy airs" and is "a down-to-earth person." Then Bush went through issue by issue: "I appreciate his plan to retain, recruit and reward good teachers," "I appreciate Jerry's stand on taxes." This provoked chants of "Jer-ry! Jerry!" as if it were what Bush once called the "Springer show." Flashing back to his own rallies, Bush shook hands along the front row of campaign volunteers and relatives who had been rewarded with seats onstage, then plunged along the front of the big crowd, posing for photos and signing for autographs, then bounding back onstage for one last triple wave.

Supporters of the Democratic candidate, Timothy M. Kaine, said they were as happy about the appearance as Republicans, since the saturation coverage—the local CBS station broke in to the Air Force One arrival live—cemented Kilgore's tie to an unpopular president. Kilgore is depending on the Republican tilt of the state, and a few hot-button issues like the death penalty and taxes. At a rally a few hours before the President showed up, Kaine reprised a line that delighted rallies all weekend, inveighing against a return to GOP rule of the Old Dominion: "If it was broke, and you fixed it, for God's sake, don't break it again! Don't break it again!" Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, now the Richmond Mayor, taunted Bush. "He'll be gone tonight," Wilder said. "We'll be here tomorrow, the next day, the next day, and every day. And we're going to send him a message." The message would be a Democratic sweep. National Republicans await the results with trepidation, since the polls are tied at best and a Kilgore loss would be covered as a certification of Bush weakness, and a harbinger of GOP troubles for next year's midterm elections.

Air Force One was on the ground for about 65 minutes. With his special guest gone and nothing left to do but wait and call in to morning radio shows, Kilgore told TIME what a thrill it had been to greet Bush at the foot of the Air Force One stairs, then ride to the hangar in the limo with the President and the first lady. "He was in the most fantastic mood when he got off that plane," Kilgore recalled. "The President said, 'You make the decision, Jerry: Tie, or no tie?'" The President had come down the stairs of the plane tieless, and that's usually the time when the local guy takes off his own. But Kilgore didn't get that memo. "I already had a tie, so he followed my fashion advice," Kilgore said, still tickled. As Air Force One disappeared into the night, Shelby Dawson, 64, of Mechanicsville, a timber dealer and exhausted Kilgore volunteer, said, "A lot of people needed that." So did the President.