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In person, Bush was doing the usual: piecing together his greatest hits on national security, talking about how horrible 9-11 was and how people could see the towers falling from Newark and Jersey Citycities a good two hours away from where he was speaking. He said, "One day [freedom] will come across the whole Middle East." And he assured the crowd, "The dream of freedom is moving forward in Iraq." He invoked the neocon mantra of making the Middle East safe by installing democratic governments. But all in all, the president wasn't into it. He looked annoyed and as if he wished it were over and he were somewhere else.
His appearance was carefully plotted free advertising aimed at southeastern Pennsylvania, the counties radiating out from Philadelphia where political professionals think the swing votes in this bitterly fought battleground are to be found. Marlton is in the Philadelphia media market, and as an added boost, Bush's blacked out any mention of a John Edwards speech in Philly itself.
Hours before the Bush speech began, the Evesham Township Recreation Center was packed with perhaps 1,500 peoplesoccer moms and tons of babies being prime features. The attendees were carefully picked. Another 1,000 stood in line outside to get in. Most of them were dressed in red, presumably in hopes the Garden State would enter the red column. Yet another 1,000 milled around waiting for a glimpse of the president. It took reporters 45 minutes to go one mile in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get there.
As for New Jersey and hard-knuckle speech about the war on terror in a state with 9-11 casualties, the visit can be read as an insult. Those families live more than two hours away in the northern suburbs outside New York.
While there has been talk of New Jersey becoming a tight race between Bush and Kerry, few actually have predicted a win by Bush. Clinton and Gore both easily took this state, and currently Kerry is just ahead in the polls.
All this lends itself to various complex theories of backroom maneuvering by the Bush campaign. Just last week, professional pols in Pennsylvania were figuring that Bush was dropping out of Pennsylvania, which had tilted slightly towards Kerry following the first debate. The usual secret sources deep within the GOP apparatus were reported to be behind this story.
If true, the move might let the Dems breathe a sigh of relief and reduce their Pennsylvania commitments. Meanwhile, Bush's sudden appearance in New Jersey might signal that that state, with its miserable gubernatorial mess, might be up for grabs, forcing the Dems to drop everything and shore up the barricades there.
"It's a brilliant move," Nick Acocella, publisher of Politifax, a weekly newsletter, told The Trenton Times. "It helps energize the Republicans in South Jersey, it gets Bush media coverage throughout the state, it gets him free air time in Pennsylvania, which is a true battleground state, and it puts the New Jersey Democrats on edge."
It also may be a clever feint in which Bush puts out word he is pulling out of Pennsylvania, while in fact, he merely goes to New Jersey to deliver a strike into the Keystone State's soft southeastern underbelly.
Additional reporting: Laurie Anne Agnese, David Botti, and Nicole Duarte