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Bush Campaign Trail Includes Western Stops - 2004-03-09

President Bush was on the campaign trail in his home state of Texas on Monday. Among his stops were fundraising events in Dallas and Houston and the bull judging ring at the world's biggest livestock show and rodeo. The president used that event to reach far beyond voters in Texas.

After spending the weekend at his ranch in central Texas, President Bush seemed relaxed and buoyant as he came before cheering crowds. "So glad to be back home," he said. "Nothing like a weekend in Texas to refresh the soul."

Senator John Kerry, who is now considered to have the Democratic presidential nomination locked up, campaigned in Texas last week and drew large crowds with his attacks on the president's handling of the economy and the war in Iraq. Polls show a majority of Texans supporting the president's re-election, but Mr. Bush made it clear Monday he would not neglect his home state.

"Feeling pretty good about my chances in Texas. But I am not taking anything for granted," said Mr. Bush. "With your help, Texas is going to be the cornerstone for a national victory in November of this year."

At the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the president stepped into a ring where some children from around the state had brought their prize bulls for judging. He greeted them and then went into the crowd to shake hands and pose for pictures with people attending the event.

Richard Duval, a Houston teacher, says he was impressed. "I was telling my wife, this is the first time I have been around where the president has been close. You get a sense of patriotism," he says. "Tell you what, I was really impressed, really moved and I thought it was a great thing for those kids to see him and a lot of people who normally would not have an opportunity to see him in this kind of atmosphere to see that.

Part of the reason for stopping by the rodeo is that this is an event where the president could reach out to more than just local voters. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is the biggest event of its kind in the world and draws tens of thousands of visitors from all over the country. It is -- in the words of one participant -- "like the World's Fair with a lot more cowboy boots." Houston is also the home of the president's father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush, and his mother, Barbara Bush and attending such events is part of family tradition.

In the months ahead, the president can be expected to appear at many more events of this type that allow him to connect with ordinary Americans at the grassroots level. Rodeos, auto races and sporting events draw a high percentage of people from middle class and working class families whose votes may be in play this year. But just making an impression as a likable guy may not be enough. Many voters are like Marilyn Delaney, who came to the Houston rodeo from New Mexico. She says she found President Bush to be friendly and charming, but she still wants answers to her concerns.

"I think NAFTA [The North American Free Trade Agreement] should be re-arranged, we have too many people who are not working," says Ms. Delaney. "Too much industry has been taken to China and the Far East and it hurts our people."

With public opinion polls showing an even split between President Bush and Senator Kerry at this point, those independent swing voters like Marilyn Delaney will take on more importance as the election draws closer. Both candidates are likely to spend a lot of time and money over the next eight months seeking them out and asking for their votes.