The federal government had nearly defaulted on its debt and Barack Obama's approval ratings had dropped to an all-time low when the president decided last August to board a bus bound for the Midwest.
Like many presidents and candidates before him, Obama ditched his fancy jet -- in this case, Air Force One -- traded in his suit coat and tie, rolled up his shirt sleeves and took his message straight to small-town America.
"I'm here to enlist you in a fight," Obama told an energized crowd of 500 in Cannon Falls, Minn. That three-day trip wasn't Obama's first buscapade, and it wouldn't be his last.
Traveling the country by bus or train is a necessity for political candidates with more ambition than cash. Sen. John McCain made a virtue of necessity by launching his vaunted "Straight Talk Express" in the 2000 Republican presidential campaign.
But even well-financed contenders find old-fashioned whistle-stop tours useful, turning low-wattage events into made-for-TV presentations that bypass an often critical national press corps for more indulgent local media coverage.
Republican Mitt Romney will be the next candidate departing the depot. He kicks off a five-day, six-state bus tour Friday in what promises to be his most aggressive campaign outing since his primary battle effectively ended in April.
Romney is hardly short on cash. He's currently outraising Obama. But Romney is boarding an eight-wheeler and hitting the road for other reasons. The multimillionaire venture capitalist needs to convince blue-collar voters that he understands their concerns.
For added drama, Romney is kicking off his journey at the farm in Stratham, N.H., where last June he announced his candidacy. From there, Romney will motor through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and, finally, Michigan, the state in which he grew up and where his father once was governor.
"For three and a half years, President Obama has paid little attention to the everyday concerns of the American people," Romney said, previewing the tour's central theme.
For more than a century, presidential contenders looking to connect with the American people have relied on whistle-stop tours, first by train and now by bus. Perhaps no one gained more from such a strategy than McCain, the Arizona senator who was running against the better-financed, better-organized George W. Bush during the 2000 Republican primary.
McCain's "Straight Talk Express" was a rolling PR machine. The press covering McCain rode in the back of the bus with him the entire time, and the candidate gladly fielded dozens of questions every day, earning media exposure he could never afford to pay for. The bus became a symbol of McCain's unconventional, maverick style and fearless candor.
Nearly a decade earlier, Bill Clinton had just secured the Democratic nomination in August of 1992 when he traded his wings for a bus caravan that Clinton dubbed the "First Thousand Miles." Half of the eight vehicles were dedicated to traveling media.
"The Clinton-Al Gore bus tour generated a lot of enthusiasm and excitement in the campaign because it took them to some more rural and small-town areas that don't normally get to see presidential candidates," said Democratic strategist Martin Frost. "It makes sense for Romney to try and do that now, just as it made sense for Clinton and Gore in 1992."