DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. — He teases Vice President Dick Cheney about his shiny pate. In Columbus, Ohio, he gleefully passes himself off as "a homeboy." In Jacksonville, Ore., he mockingly alludes to a predecessor's stinginess, vowing not to complain about his hotel bill, as Rutherford B. Hayes did in 1880 after a stay there.
Having waged an often negative, bare-knuckles campaign against Sen. John F. Kerry, President Bush has begun cranking up a charm offensive in hopes of closing the sale with voters.
With six days until the election, the self-styled "war president" is striving to cultivate a softer, average-guy image -- even as he continues bashing Kerry as a flip-flopper and a Massachusetts liberal who doesn't understand the war against terrorism, and as his campaign continues airing hard-edged television ads.
Kerry, too, has been trying to display his "regular guy" qualities -- drinking beer while watching the baseball playoffs, speaking in a more folksy style and donning a camouflage outfit to go goose hunting with a double-barreled shotgun.
Their efforts reflect the importance of pressing every possible advantage in what could be another agonizingly close election. Some analysts believe Bush is seen by voters as the more likable of the two candidates, someone who connects with voters on a personal level even though they may not agree with him. They see Bush's attempts to project a warm image as an effort to capitalize on that.
"Most voters really do choose presidents on the big issues of the day, despite all the emphasis on style management by the media and candidates," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. "However, there is a threshold of likability which a candidate must pass to get elected. To be blunt, for a narrow majority of Americans, Kerry is simply not warm and likable, while Bush is."
Apprised of that assessment, Karl Rove, the president's top political strategist, was happy to pile on. "The American people have come to know him, and, whether they agree with him or not, they respect and like him," he said of Bush.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania this month, Bush's charm offensive was on full display as he delivered a series of quips -- including some at his own expense -- that had his friendly audiences rocking with delight.
In a speech on medical liability reform in Downingtown, the president argued that using computer technology to modernize medical records would minimize doctors' reliance on handwritten records, which in turn might reduce treatment errors.
Then he added: "Doctors don't write very well anyway. They write about as well as I speak English."
At events where his daughter Barbara introduced her father, Bush took the opportunity to make more jokes. "I love traveling with my daughters on the campaign trail," he said.
"There's nothing better than being with somebody who, well, tells you to keep your tie straight, don't spill your food before you get out there and talk to the people.
"You know, I used to tell Barbara and Jenna that one of these days, we'll go on a camping trip together -- the great family camping experience. I'm sure they envisioned the Colorado River or somewhere. Well darling, this is it."
Bush also directed a barb at Cheney: "I didn't pick him because of his hairdo. He does not have the waviest hair in the race. But I picked him because of his experience and sound judgment."
Another occasional butt of presidential merrymaking is Bush's younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Campaigning in Coral Springs in mid-October, the brothers popped into a fast-food outlet, where First Lady Laura Bush and the governor ordered up seven servings of wings to go. When the president joined them at the counter, he asked the cashier, "Did my brother pay for lunch?"
Jeb had not.
"All right, I'll pay for it," the president said. "Nothing's changed."
When Bush campaigned in Columbus with golf legend Jack Nicklaus, a hometown hero, he told a massive crowd at the Nationwide Arena: "It doesn't get any better than being introduced by Jack Nicklaus in Columbus, Ohio. While you were cheering, I asked him if he had any advice for my golf game. He said, 'Quit.' "
Like Pennsylvania, Ohio is a battleground state, and that fact prompted this unusual Bush appeal: "Jack said he and [his wife] Barbara are from Columbus. So am I. My grandfather was raised right here in Columbus, Ohio. So I'm here to ask that you send a homeboy back to Washington, D.C."
Bush's relative success in projecting an affable image may well help him win over some undecided voters, Sabato said.
"I believe that is the last major barrier holding Kerry back from an outright win, along with the fear in much of the country that he is simply too liberal," he said.
"Bush is right to play on both these concerns, because there is some basic instinct to stick with the devil you know, particularly if he's a likable devil," Sabato said.
"It can be difficult to be critical and at the same time appealing personally. But Bush has mastered this, mainly through humor, the wink and other techniques," he said.
Another independent political analyst, Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, said he was puzzled that the Kerry campaign had not earlier sought to project the senator's personal side.
"They've not developed Kerry's personality," Cook said. "If the Kerry campaign is to be faulted, it's that they didn't show Kerry enough as a human being ... to sort of flesh him out as a person and warm him up a little bit."