WASHINGTON — Political miracles can and do happen. But never in the history of the Republic thus far has a presidential candidate been as far behind as Bob Dole is now and surged ahead at the 11th hour to win.
Even Harry Truman's 1948 "upset" victory over Thomas Dewey is a bit misleading. President Truman was much closer in the polls to his opponent than Mr. Dole is to President Clinton. Also then, as now, the economy was robust - and Truman got much of the credit for it.
In order for trailing presidential candidates to surge ahead and win, two things have to happen, says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at Washington's Brookings Institution. "There has to be room for them to grow if they aren't well known at the outset," he says, "and second, they have to operate in such a way that they aren't rowing upstream, in which they're riding the crest of the wave, not fighting it."
Neither condition applies to Dole. He is a famous political figure, and his insistence that the economy is in bad shape is contrary to the general public perception.
Also, Dole's campaign tactics against Mr. Clinton simply aren't working. The Republican challenger has, for instance, repeatedly denounced the president's personal character - to no seeming avail.
The failure of the character issue shows that American voters have matured, says Prof. Benjamin Barber, the director of Rutgers University's Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy in New Jersey. "I think [the voters] really have figured out that what they're looking for in presidential leadership is an ability to guide and make sound judgments ... in office. I think the American people realize that personal character and presidential character are two different things."
Some Republicans have pointed to the 1993 come-from-behind victory of Christine Todd Whitman to become governor of New Jersey as a sign of hope.
Mrs. Whitman became a recognized Republican figure when she almost defeated Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley in his re-election bid in 1990. Her new opponent, Gov. James Florio (D), had made himself unpopular by enacting an income-tax increase. After a tough Republican primary fight, Whitman became favored to beat Governor Florio in 1993.
Her campaign got off to a rocky start. Although Whitman had won name recognition in her race against Senator Bradley, nobody knew much about her. Florio attacked her as a wealthy, out-of-touch elitist who didn't know much about New Jersey's problems.
In September, Whitman announced that, if she won, she would reduce income taxes by 30 percent. The proposal, like Dole's promised 15 percent tax cut, was greeted with derision by newspapers and pundits.
Yet Whitman appeared articulate and candid on television, and her ratings improved steadily through the autumn while Florio's hovered in the low 50s. In the end, Whitman won - a narrow victory of about 20,000 votes, but a victory nonetheless.
Although there are some similarities between the Whitman and Dole campaigns, the differences are crucial. Initially, Whitman was a relatively unknown politician who was able to make herself prominent - some would say invent herself - through the skilful use of television and increasing the plausibility of her tax cut proposal. Dole hasn't been able to make his proposed tax cut a plausible policy - nor has he been able to publicly invent himself as a potential president.
In any event, voters may be less receptive these days to a reinvented candidate than they were decades ago. Today's voters make up their minds early in the campaigns and tend not to change them, says Linda Jamison, a political scientist at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington.
If she's right, that is a final dash of cold water on Dole's hopes of coming from behind and beating Clinton next week.