President Bush is sticking to an old axiom in the final days of the midterm campaign - better to be a big fish in a little pond.
Bush's schedule for the last stretch going into Tuesday's election is taking him to small communities where a presidential visit can have a big impression, such as this western Iowa town of 9,349. He can create a buzz, excite voters for the GOP ticket and draw extensive coverage from the local media.
White House advisers explain that a presidential visit to a place like Philadelphia, where Republican candidates for governor, the Senate and the House are in danger of losing, might get relatively short clips in the city's news. But a visit to western Nebraska, where he plans to stop Sunday to help an endangered Republican congressional candidate, is likely to result in three days of wall-to-wall coverage.
Popularity versus controversy
It doesn't hurt that Bush is more popular in the small, Republican-leaning communities he is visiting from the West to the Great Plains and the South. A visit to a place like Philadelphia where he is a more controversial figure could turn some voters against GOP candidates.
"The president, any president, can dominate small to medium market television coverage any time of the year simply by being there," said Jeff Eller, the CEO of Public Strategies consulting firm who was in charge of local media strategy in the Clinton White House. "There's a visual magic that occurs every time Air Force One touches down and the president stands in front of the official seal. They do it because it works."
Bush made two stops in Missouri Friday to tout vulnerable Sen. Jim Talent, but he didn't go to the population centers of St. Louis and Kansas City, which have more than twice the residents of any other cities in the state. Instead, he tried to excite the smaller communities of Springfield and Joplin.
In Elko, Nev., population 16,685, more than 3,000 people stood out in a cold drizzle at the airport Thursday to see the first sitting president visit their town since Herbert Hoover 74 years ago. But the audience for Bush's message to elect Republican candidates went much further - local television and radio carried his partisan speech live. The visit was front page news in the Elko Daily Free Press for days in advance.
A stop earlier in the day in Billings, Mont., also drew thousands for Sen. Conrad Burns, one of the most endangered Republican incumbents. TV stations KULR and KTQV had live coverage not just of his speech, but every moment of his visit from Air Force One's arrival through its takeoff.
Balanced coverage out the window
Matt McKenna, spokesman for Burns challenger Jon Tester, questioned how much Bush's visit will help, despite the precious air time the president absorbed in the week before Election Day.
"There's no question balanced coverage goes out the window at the first sign of presidential advance staff," McKenna said. "The president joined a long line of Washington politicians in town instructing us how to vote and that doesn't sit well with folks here. The only thing he brings to the table is a week's worth of free air time from star-struck, small-market TV reporters."
Bush's election eve visit to northwest Arkansas - the state's Republican stronghold - was the top story on the Web sites of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and TV station KFSM on Friday, three days before he was scheduled to arrive in support of Republican Asa Hutchinson's gubernatorial campaign. But he's not the only one who can demand such coverage.
Former President Clinton visited Jonesboro Friday to campaign for Hutchinson's Democratic opponent, Attorney General Mike Beebe. Television station KAIT ran Clinton and Beebe's appearance live in place of scheduled soap operas.