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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Campaigner Bush Is in a Groove

SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota -- On Saturday in Tennessee, U.S. President George W. Bush said that Van Hilleary, the Republican candidate for governor, was a great guy because he didn't need "a poll or a focus group to tell him what to think." On Friday night in Kentucky, Bush commended Representative Anne Northup, who is in a tough re-election fight, because she, too, didn't need "a poll or a focus group to tell her what to think." Five and a half hours earlier in New Hampshire, Bush praised John Sununu, the Republican candidate for Senate, for having, amazingly enough, that very same ability to ignore polls and focus groups.

Regular listeners to Bush's political stump speech sometimes feel as if they're in the middle of "Groundhog Day," the 1993 movie that forced Bill Murray to relive the same Feb. 2 over and over. The speech got an especially hard workout this past weekend, when Bush delivered it seven times in six states in a final all-out push for candidates in close midterm elections. On Monday he was to deliver it four more times at rallies in Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas.

The president has repeated his 30-minute-plus stump speech so often that it rarely makes news, even though it is at the core of the case he makes for himself. Delivered largely extemporaneously, the speech is a kitchen sink of carefully calculated phrases by White House political advisers -- Bush now talks about the economy before he gets to Iraq -- and a revealing look into the president's on-the-road thought process.

"The stump comes out of the president's mind," said Michael Gerson, Bush's chief speechwriter. "He is the editor, redactor and creator of the stump. It's kind of an organic process where you give him some material and he doesn't use it directly, but he may play off of it."

Unlike Bush's major addresses, like his speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12, the president delivers his stump speech without a teleprompter or prepared text. He works largely from memory, mixing and matching favorite lines from other remarks, but is aided by full sentences of briefing points made by White House speechwriters on 5-by-8 index cards. Bush typically scrawls over a few selected cards in a black marker with single words -- "economy," "jobs" and "small business," for example -- to remind himself to get into his familiar riffs on those subjects, then throws out the rest.

"I just don't think he's using much of anything," Gerson said. "I think he's kind of in a groove."

These days Bush's stump speech is almost the opposite of the one he was giving last January, when he focused on smoking terrorists out of their caves. With recent polls showing Americans more concerned about the economy than terrorism, Bush now starts off with lengthy accolades about his 2001 tax cut, with assertions specific to each state about how many billions of dollars it will put into voters' pockets over the next decade. He talks of the need to create jobs, improve schools and add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The speech is more than half over before Bush gets to Iraq and the campaign against terror.

The stump speech also reflects the evolving political priorities at the White House. Last spring, when the administration was under intense scrutiny for missing clues to the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush larded his speech with demands for the creation of a department for domestic defense. During last summer's corporate scandals, he used the speech to refer to corrupt executives in the terms -- he was going to hunt them down -- that he normally reserved for terrorists.

Interspersed throughout are pet jokes of the president, although not necessarily of his advisers. A new Bush favorite that has even members of the White House staff rolling their eyes is Bush's assertion that his administration is going to have to hunt down terrorists because "therapy isn't going to work on them." Still, pumped-up Republican crowds usually give him a big laugh.

Over the months, Bush has dropped some once-cherished lines and verbal tics. He no longer makes references to his dogs, Barney and Spot, for example, and he has cut back on his excessive use of "fabulous" to describe everything from his wife to the U.S. military.

Nonetheless, every man running for political office in the United States, including Bush and his brother Jeb, has married above himself. Oh, and at a rally last week in Denver, Bush said that Senator Wayne Allard, the Republican seeking re-election in Colorado, didn't need "a focus group or a poll to tell him what to think."