October 31, 2010 HANOVERTON, Ohio (KATAKAMI / NYTimes) — The speaker in waiting was waiting to speak, perched atop a bale of hay on a small platform outside the Spread Eagle Tavern, where the windows were draped with patriotic red, white and blue bunting.
Back in his home state on the weekend before the biggest election of his career, John A. Boehner absent-mindedly flicked a hand through his hair, though it was already perfectly in place. He listened as one local conservative after another railed against Washington and the federal government and the Congress that Mr. Boehner has inhabited for 18 years, only to emerge now, perhaps improbably, as the face of much hungered-for change.
With the autumn leaves fluttering down in a swirl of crimson and bronze, Mr. Boehner stood up to make his case for Bill Johnson, the local Republican candidate for the House, and more broadly for a nationwide sweep that he hopes will propel Republicans into the majority and himself into the speaker’s post, second in line to the presidency.
It is a case squarely against President Obama and the current speaker, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, whose name he always pronounces, “pell-oh-Zee” as if practicing his conversational Italian.
“If you want to send Nancy Pelosi packing her bags, back to San Francisco, elect Bill Johnson,” he told the crowd.
At each stop he draws on nostalgia for the Republican glory days of the 1980s, by telling the same joke. “Remember when Ronald Reagan was president,” he said. “We had Bob Hope. We had Johnny Cash. Think about where we are today. We have got President Obama. But we have no hope and we have no cash.” It draws hoots of laughter and applause every time.
As he zipped across a southeastern swath of Ohio this weekend, partly by coach bus, occasionally by the black S.U.V. that is the more customary mode of transport for Congressional leaders these days, Mr. Boehner made a succinct and forceful pitch for Republican candidates and for their view of America.
He is also playing it safe, refusing to answer reporters’ questions about substantive topics, including the recently foiled terrorist effort to mail explosives to the United States.
Instead, he offers a sharp stump speech, tightened to about six minutes.
“Look, I have got to tell you straight up,” he begins, “because I am not Nancy Pelosi, I am not Barack Obama. I say what I mean, and I mean what I say.”
He reminds his audience of Mr. Obama’s health care forum with Congressional leaders last winter. “You remember the seven-hour Obama infomercial? Oh yeah, we were just supposed to be the potted plants for that event,” he said. “And during that event the president said, when we have ideological differences or we have philosophical differences, he said, and I’ll quote, ‘that’s what elections are for.’
“Well, he certainly is right,” Mr. Boehner continued. “Because if you are tired of all the bailouts, if you are tired of all the stimulus spending, if you are tired of the government taking over virtually everything in America, remember what the president said: ‘That’s what elections are for.’ ”
Mr. Boehner is also reintroducing himself to voters in Ohio and by extension to an American public that still largely has no idea who he is or what he is about.
He presents himself as a regular guy, an unlikely leader who sort of stumbled into elective office. His perma-tan, the result of many hours on many golf courses, has faded — either because he is working too much or in a strategic effort to — literally — tone down his appearance.
“You know I am the last guy in the world who should be standing here,” he said. “I have got 11 brothers and sisters. My dad owned a bar. I grew up mopping floors, waiting tables, washing dishes and every rotten job. I have worked every night shift you can imagine, and I am going to tell you what: I loved every job that I had, at least until I get the next one.”
Mr. Boehner is also dressing the part of regular guy, a dramatic departure from his Washington wardrobe of designer suits and ties. On Saturday, he wore blue jeans, a checkered shirt, and a blue fleece pullover with the collar turned up. On Sunday, he looked like an overgrown schoolboy in blue chinos, and a white collared shirt covered by a cable sweater with the cuffs slightly rolled at his wrists.
But most striking is his argument against Washington, where he has served as the Republican leader for the last four years and was responsible for delivering Republican votes, even his own, for the big financial system bailout in 2008.
At a rally on Sunday evening in Chillicothe, Mr. Boehner nodded to his own longevity, noting that some people might say, “Well, you’re part of the problem.” But he insisted, and the hugely enthusiastic crowd seemed to agree, that he was in fact dedicated to change, including an overhaul of the way the House does business.
“Understand this: if we are lucky enough to be in the majority in the U.S. House and I am lucky enough to be the next speaker of the House,” he said, “it’s going to be different, and not just different than it is today under Democrat control, but different than when Republicans last had the chance to govern in Washington, D.C.”
He said he was willing to take on challenges that other Congressional leaders have ducked in the past two decades. “It’s about time that Americans come together and have an adult conversation with each other about the serious challenges that our country faces,” he said.
That Mr. Boehner has the luxury of being in his home state on the final weekend of the campaign, after months spent raising tens of millions of dollars and stumping for Republican candidates across the country, is simply the lucky consequence of Ohio being a hotly contested political battleground. Both Mr. Obama and former President Bill Clinton were also here this weekend.
Mr. Boehner’s speeches are peppered with jabs at Mr. Obama, and he dwells in particular on a recent interview in which, he says, the president referred to his political opponents as “enemies.”
“I can’t hardly believe the president said this,” Mr. Boehner said. “For the president to use that word about people who oppose bigger government, people who are freedom-loving and love our Constitution, I have to tell you, I have got to find that very appalling. And so Mr. President, I have got a word for those people, those people who oppose your policies, those people who love our Constitution, who love freedom and love the principles that America was built on. You know what I call those people? Not enemies. They’re patriots.”
While he is predicting a big win for Republicans, Mr. Boehner also said he would not gloat and, indeed, aides have said he would not hold a big election-night victory party.
“Our job in Washington is to respect the Constitution and to respect the will of the American people,” he said at an appearance at a Republican tailgate party at the Muskingum County Fairgrounds in Zanesville. “And I can tell you, on Tuesday night we are going to have a big win. But it’s not a time to celebrate. When one out of 10 of our fellow citizens are out of work, when we have buried our kids and grandkids under a mountain of debt, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and go to work.”