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President Brings Campaign to Region

Lackawanna County Stadium, in the midst of watching its Red Barons exit with a losing streak to cap a disappointing August, was filled with cheers for a winner last Friday morning. The President of the United States, fresh off accepting the Republican nomination for the job he has held for three years and eight months, chose Northeastern Pennsylvania to make his first campaign stop after what was adjudged a winning performance by the pollsters at Madison Square Garden the night before.

Inside the stadium, somewhere between 10,000 (the stadium estimate) and 15,000 (the Bush-Cheney estimate) were making enough noise for those numbers combined. "Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!" they were chanting, sometimes together but more often not. Most were clearly stalwart Republicans, many of whom had stayed up the night before to watch his acceptance speech on television. Now they were going to see him in the flesh, and they were ready to cheer anything he said. One fellow who said he was from Moosic reported that he had been at the Convention Tuesday and Wednesday, but had to come home and missed the grand finale Thursday.

"I saw Zell," he said, referring to Georgia Senator Zell Miller, the convention's keynote speaker and Democrat in registration only who came out pulling no punches against his party's nominees. "That was something!"

Inside the stadium, the combination of the roaring crowd and the King's College Band blasting spirited up-tempo numbers, made it seem like a football game in which everyone was rooting for the home team. In preparation for the President's slated 9:45 a.m. appearance, they had been ratcheted up by country music and enthusiastic pep talks from the likes of Sen. Rick Santorum and Congressman Don Sherwood. Some of the people had already been on site for more than four hours.

There were all kinds of signs, and you could be anything you wanted to be. As a Vietnam veteran myself, I was somewhat surprised to see a woman waving a sign proclaiming: "Vietnam Veterans for Bush." I was not surprised that there were Vietnam veterans supporting Bush or even that some of them are women. It was that this particular woman was barely in her thirties, which was about as many years ago as our withdrawal from that losing proposition.

A few minutes later I found a pile of signs like that one, which volunteers were encouraging people to hold up and wave. There were other signs in other piles, including "Sportsmen for Bush" and "Seniors for Bush." All bore the trademark of the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania, whatever that is. There were lots of hats with the letter "W" on them and women with pins that stated "W Stands for Women."

Of all the signs waved at the President after he commenced his 45-minute speech, only one drew an appreciative reaction from him. It said, "Give 'Em Hell, Zell." It seemed the only politico who could upstage him this week was a Democrat, and the President didn't seem to mind. He definitely doesn't mind being upstaged by his life partner, Laura Bush, and it was she who introduced him, playing to the hometown crowd by underlining this as "our first stop as we leave the Convention" and vowing to spend a lot of time in Pennsylvania between now and Nov. 2.

She proudly described her husband as a liberator of 50 million people, and as the one "to lead us out of recession." That may have been the only surprising statement made at the event, since nobody, particularly the incumbent administration, has been talking about a recession. But the President himself, not long into his speech, stated proudly, "We overcame recession." Perhaps the message was that we would be in a recession were it not for the Bush policies.

Starting out low key and folksy, the President perked up a bit when someone standing on the field level below the platform on which his podium stood shouted, "I can't hear you!"

"Maybe it's because I talked too much last night," he said, eliciting a wave of laughter, cheers and applause.

Down at the field level, amazed that he and his family were so close to the President, was Pastor Dennis Fox from Terrytown. The platform on which the President spoke was in that triangular area between home plate and the backstop. Fox, from where he stood, could step forward with his foot and touch home plate. He admittedly cheered himself hoarse at every pause in the President's speech, but he'll remember the human moments. Someone fainted in the throng near Fox, and the President, while still speaking, gestured for the benefit of his Secret Service agents to get someone out there to help.

"I was close enough to hear him whistle between his teeth," says Fox, who found it appealingly down to earth and unexpected.

A member of the press corps, crowded on a platform just behind the infield area, noticed that too. "He never missed a beat in his speech, but he was pointing out people in the crowd who needed help," said Chuck Carver, General Manager of WATS-WAVR radio in Athens. Ironically, both Fox and Carver said that their initial reaction upon seeing the President pointing down into the crowd was a tremor of fear that something was amiss. The specter of potential terrorism will never go away. The forested ridges overlooking the stadium seemed foreboding, even in the sparkling sunshine. Agents, apparently at the President's direction, starting passing bottles of water back into the cheering crowd. Fox drank his, kept the bottle and still has it as campaign memorabilia.

"That's what I'll remember," Fox said, recalling his proximity to one of the most powerful men on earth. "It made him seem caring and human."

Further up in the stands, not so far from the President myself, I noticed none of this as I alternately peeked over the shoulder in front of me and took notes. I was marveling at all the college-aged people with T-shirts proclaiming themselves as volunteers. I talked to a few of them, and they say there is a lot of support for Bush on local campuses such at Kings, the University of Scranton, Wilkes and others.

"I'd say it is 50-50," said one, who apparently doesn't buy the theory that college campuses are breeding grounds for liberalism and anti-establishment dissent. "It's surprising some of the people who are for Bush."

One young couple, who passed the minutes prior to the President's speech quizzing each other from a textbook, did not join in the cheering but seemed quietly respectful of what was going on. "This is history," the young man said somberly when asked why they were there.

I could easily get a text of the President's speech, but I jotted down things he said that grabbed my attention as someone in the crowd. He clearly sees himself as keeping terrorism at bay and out of our backyard.

"I believe the most solemn duty of the President is to protect the American people," he said at one point.

He also said: "We will strike the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them at home."

Then there was the reference to that date fast approaching its third anniversary: "September 11 requires our country to think differently. We must control threats before they materialize."

He talked about his job being to improve lives, not to run them, which reminded me a lot of Ronald Reagan, and I gave him points the way he circumvented the criticism that his espoused tax cuts only benefit the wealthy.

"Taxing the rich. You know what that means? They dodge, you pay

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