Tony Blair emerges from a Range Rover next to the village hall in Highnam, just outside Gloucester near the Welsh border, and bounds up to a dozen locals there to greet him. His handshake is athletic: coat open, big reach, pivoting from the waist, legs spread apart. He works out in Downing Street two or three days a week and exudes vitality no longer the boyish charm of his 1997 campaign, but still, in the words of a longtime aide, "surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" in light of how things have been going lately. His party's six-point lead in the polls has dropped to three points, he's been savaged on TV by women furious about the Iraq war and the National Health Service, and his traditionally smooth New Labour p.r. machine has been sounding creaky in the run-up to a general election expected on May 5. Inside the hall, 60 people selected by their Labour M.P.s are waiting to cross- examine him.
This is campaigning, not governing. Labour hired the hall and plastered its windows with its vapid campaign slogan, forward not back. Blair gets friendly applause as he enters but soon faces tough questions. "On Iraq, I think the whole thing was wrong. I've never been convinced of your motivation," says the first man he meets. Blair deploys his usual answers: "Look at the hope Iraqis now have for their own country. The effect on peace and security throughout the Middle East could be very, very big." But he fails to make a convert. "I hope you're right," the man says. "I still think you were wrong."
But how will he vote? The national mood is grumpy. Crime, immigration and taxes are starting to play for the opposition Conservatives. Polls indicate that 11% of people who voted Labour in 2001 are so turned off by Blair they might stay home, possibly driving turnout down to a historic low of 50%. Few think Labour could really lose; a huge swing, more than 10%, would be needed to boot Blair out. But with a low turnout, surprises on the margins could trim Labour's current 161-seat majority and undermine Blair's authority in what he has declared will be his final term.
The fundamentals are good: 3% economic growth, with the lowest inflation and unemployment rates and nearly the lowest mortgage rate in a generation. Only 10% of voters now rate the economy as a big concern. Lots of new hospitals and doctors' offices are being built, and people generally praise their own health care even as they disparage the system as a whole. They're more demanding now. "It's not our nature as a people to be grateful," says one Minister. That's why the damage to Blair's credibility from failing to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is still potent. When he claims that hospital waiting lists are down, or student test scores are up, Tory leader Michael Howard simply replies, "You can't believe a word he says."
Which is why Blair takes hits in Highnam and around the country; an aide dubs it the "masochism strategy." The calculation is that people might start listening to Blair again if he sits there and responds to whatever they dish out. In Highnam, it seems to do the job. People focus mostly on concrete problems like disabled access and lousy school lunches. He's a good listener, and an aide takes down addresses to send follow-up letters. Blair gets a chance to repeat ad nauseam the themes of Labour's campaign: the Tories will cut spending, our economy is stable, Labour has done a lot to help pensioners. After 90 minutes, people are asking for his autograph and posing for photos. He does some quick local interviews the disbelieving national press has not been invited: "They're a total waste," says veteran adviser Alastair Campbell then a radio call-in, then another hair-shirt session in Wales with readers of a local paper.
Last year, one of Blair's aides studied how parties long in power elsewhere managed to renew themselves with voters. The most persistent answer: Get a new leader. That will come, but not now. "Blair has huge confidence in his ability to handle things," says one official. In a few weeks, his confidence will have its test.