GREENSBORO, N.C. — For President Barack Obama, the bus is back.
That's the sleek, million-dollar, Secret Service-approved bus that's been carrying Obama along North Carolina's winding mountain roads, giving the president a chance to take in the fall foliage and bask in some small-town Southern hospitality.
"Saw the mountains, saw some lakes, saw all the wonderful people in this part of the country," Obama said Monday during a speech in rural Millers Creek.
"Even the folks who don't vote for me are nice," he added.
At the heart of Obama's three-day bus trip through North Carolina and Virginia is a sales pitch for elements in the jobs bill he wants Congress to pass.
Senate Democrats announced they would act first on a single part of Obama's plan, a $35 billion longshot bid to help states hire teachers and police.
A Senate vote could come as soon as the end of the week. If not, it would probably fall into November because the Senate plans to take a break next week, even as Obama urges quick action.
In North Carolina, the president directed his most pointed remarks at Senate Republicans, who last week blocked action on his full $447 billion proposal combining tax cuts and new spending.
"Essentially they said no to you," Obama told a supportive crowd outside Asheville on Monday.
But in this bus tour, the president is also selling himself, an incumbent candidate running for re-election, trying to re-energize voters whose enthusiasm may have waned. That's particularly important in North Carolina, a state Obama wrested from Republicans in 2008, but which could slip out of his grasp next November.
To try to recapture some of his electoral appeal, Obama turned to campaign staples: barbecue, babies and barrels of candy.
Obama spent more than four hours Monday driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains, which were bright with red and orange fall leaves. The president stopped off in Marion, population 8,075, for lunch at Countryside Barbeque. The president ordered at the counter — he got the barbecue platter and sweet tea — then spent more than half an hour shaking hands and having his picture taken with the lunchtime crowd.
The tech-savvy president even helped one woman figure out how to take a photo on her smartphone.
Obama had a close encounter with one baby boy: "I think you got some biscuit on me," the president said as he handed the child back to his mother.
And he made personal appeals for his economic policies, telling one table of local businessmen about his call for $50 billion more in new infrastructure spending. He said, "We're going to have to do it eventually, so why not do it now?"
Obama's unscheduled stops aren't wholly impromptu. White House staffers typically scope out areas in advance and Secret Service officers arrive well ahead of the president.
But they're about as spontaneous as it gets for the president, and afford him the freedom of personal, retail politics that's often missing in the highly scripted White House.
Obama's bus, as well as the staff and press vans that followed behind, passed crowds of people lined up on the sidewalks of small towns and residents sitting on lawn chairs in their front yards. A group of schoolchildren gathered outside their classrooms, waving small American flags. A man pulled his car over to the side of the road and saluted as the commander-in-chief sped by.
One woman held a sign reading "We believe. We voted. Now What?" That message underscored the challenge Obama faces as he seeks to rally his supporters ahead of next November's election.
Key to Obama's 2008 success in North Carolina was his campaign's ability to boost voter turnout among young people. And there were plenty of them in Boone, home to Appalachian State University, when Obama stopped Monday for a shopping trip at Mast General Store.
The store was filled with barrels of candy, which Obama started grabbing by the handful — to help the White House prepare for Halloween, he said.
"On Halloween, the first lady doesn't mind," Obama said of his health-conscious wife.
Day two of Obama's bus trip was to start at a community college near Greensboro and end in Hampton, Va. Hours of drive time was scheduled in between, giving Obama plenty more chances for unscheduled stops.
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