LAWRENCEBURG – The bus lumbered into the square, a black SUV on either side, blue lights flashing. Lamar Alexander popped out in his red plaid shirt and immediately began shaking hands with the knot of about two dozen people gathered in the shade of a closed antique shop.
Alexander's traveling companion, former Sen. Fred Thompson, emerged from the bus behind him. His goatee neatly trimmed and white teeth gleaming, the lawyer-turned-actor-turned politician who preceded Alexander in the Senate reminisced briefly about his childhood in and around the town.
"The Democratic-Union?" he reminisced to a reporter from a local newspaper who had awaited their arrival. "I sold the Democratic-Union, when it was a dime, I think."
Alexander has crisscrossed Tennessee in recent weeks, a 35-stop bus tour he hopes will seal the Republican nomination for a third term. The series of folksy appearances are meant to connect Alexander back to a time when candidates routinely traveled the state by train, car or, in his famous case, on foot to make their pitch to the voters.
Times have changed. Television advertisements, data analysis, cell phones and streaming media all factor into Alexander's campaign plan. He faces state Rep. Joe Carr, Memphis physician George Flinn and several other Republican candidates in the primary.
But Alexander said he believes in ending his campaigns with a bus tour to try to close the deal with Tennesseans.
"Each town has its own set of traditions, and if you look closely enough, you'll find them," he said. "And a lot of the families are the same."
At this point in the campaign, Alexander's stump speech has been ground down to a nub. Inside Lawrenceburg's Square Forty Restaurant, he flew through eight minutes of remarks stressing his experience and conservative credentials, mainly for the benefit of the assembled reporters.
Afterward, Alexander and Thompson returned to the bus. A pair of aides worked on laptops. Alexander's and Thompson's grandchildren busied themselves with tablet computers, while Alexander's daughter, Leslee, typed away on another tablet. A pair of televisions played silently in the background.
Thompson gazed thoughtfully out the window as Lawrenceburg's car dealerships and big-box stores gave way to rolling fields of corn and soybeans. He and Alexander swapped stories about Washington and past campaigns.
"There you are," Alexander interjected as Thompson appeared on the television screens to pitch a reverse mortgage company. "You can't go 30 minutes without seeing you."
"A lot of my friends around the state say, 'You know, I can't go 10 minutes without seeing Lamar Alexander,' " Thompson shot back cheerfully. "That's the way I feel."
The bus continued north to Brentwood, where it pulled in front of the City Café, a slightly more upscale cafeteria. A crowd perhaps three times as large as the one in Lawrenceburg had gathered to hear Thompson and Alexander campaign alongside Gov. Bill Haslam.
The two senators flew through essentially the same speech — experience, conservative record — though Alexander could add one more anecdote to his quiver of stories.
"In the campaign bus, you know, we've got it tuned to Fox News satellite, and Fred comes on trying to sell us a reverse mortgage," Alexander recounted to laughter. "But he's also out trying to sell me, so I like him."