PITTSBURGH — George W. Bush--tired, triumphant and at long last the Republican nominee for president--left his party's convention Friday morning on a four-state, pan-vehicular tour through the battleground Midwest, vowing to "keep the momentum alive."
With overnight polls showing a significant post-convention bounce, the Texas governor said the challenge now is to "take my message to the key electoral states and work hard and campaign."
Bush kicked off his "change the tone tour" from a burgundy Norfolk Southern caboose, his wife and running mate by his side, this city's skyline spiking up over the Monongahela River to his left.
He asked several thousand cheering supporters to "give us a chance to change America for the better." He echoed his Thursday night acceptance speech: "It won't be long now!"
Basking in the glow of a nominating convention that he deemed to be "a fantastic experience," Bush told the Pittsburgh crowd that "the most emotional moment" of the entire week had been watching wife Laura's prime-time speech four days earlier.
"What a fabulous smile," he said, "what a great speech." And Laura Welch Bush smiled again and they reached out and held hands and the crowd roared, "Laura! Laura! Laura!" Then she turned to her husband and mouthed through the clamor, "Thank you, Bushie."
Friday for George W. Bush was a day of looking forward to the campaign and back at a tightly scripted convention, which culminated in what communications director Karen Hughes described as the "speech of his life."
Before leaving Philadelphia for Pittsburgh, Bush talked on the campaign plane about the electricity he sensed when he stepped onstage to accept his party's nomination. He described the deep sense of responsibility he felt upon donning the Republican Party's mantle. And he reminisced about a celebration that kept him up hours past his usual bedtime: "I set a modern-day record for me, 1:30 in the morning," he said of the time he finally hit the sack.
"I think we've got a good chance of winning," Bush told reporters before the first leg of the post-convention tour--a planes, trains and automobiles extravaganza that will take him through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois before it ends Sunday night in Springfield.
"I'm sure there will be all kinds of polls and speculation between now and election day," he said. "That's why it's so important for us to be patient and keep our eye on the finish line."
Bush reached out to moderate and independent voters in his acceptance speech Thursday night, promising that his new Republican Party will "extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country."
But Friday morning in Philadelphia, at the traditional post-convention interfaith prayer breakfast, at least one speaker narrowed Bush's wide spoke of "rampant divorce . . . burgeoning cohabitation and a trend toward redefining marriage and the family."
"Let us never forget that as goes the family, so goes the nation," warned Roman Catholic Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who also charged that "millions of children have been slaughtered through abortion and will never enjoy the right to life."
And then the cardinal introduced the candidate, who stayed away from the divisive issue of abortion rights, did not follow up on Bevilacqua's veiled anti-gay remarks and struggled to steer the discussion back to the center.
"Sitting up here at the dais just reminds me that we're all God's children in America, that the gateway to heaven takes different paths," Bush said. "Our mission, regardless of political party, is to work together to make sure no child is left behind . . . is to focus our efforts on rejecting bigotry and hatred and promoting that which we find in prayer and our respective books of God."
Members of Vice President Al Gore's campaign have spent the week of the Republican convention charging that Bush has been masquerading as a moderate, dancing a "Texas two-step" toward the political center, a routine they say has little foundation in reality.
Asked on the campaign plane about the Democrat's arguments, Bush bristled visibly. "They can say anything they want. I gave a speech last night about what I want to do. I talked about tax relief, strengthening the military, reforming Social Security. I talked about education."
He also insisted he was not taking swipes at President Clinton when he charged in his speech Thursday that "our generation has a chance to reclaim some essential values--to show we've grown up before we grow old."
When he talks like that, when he promises to bring honor and dignity back to the White House, he said, "that's what I'm going to do, and if people draw conclusions other than that, so be it."
According to the latest Battleground 2000 tracking poll, conducted by the online political site, Bush's lead over Gore has grown from 8 percentage points to 19 points through the week of the convention.
At the Republican National Committee breakfast--another tradition for nominees before they head off into the general election--running mate Dick Cheney acknowledged that "right now the polls look great. The opposition is obviously shellshocked."
But Cheney also warned before the sort-of whistle-stop tour began that there will be a tough battle ahead. Referring to Gore and the Democratic Party, he said, "This crew is not likely to steal off into the sunset."
It was a sentiment Bush echoed later out in the Pennsylvania countryside. "It's going to be a tough campaign," he told a small crowd gathered behind the 18-car Victory 2000 at a quick stop between Beaver and New Castle. "It is. That's why we're here in Wampum, Pa. We're taking no votes for granted."
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this story.