Will Bush Ever Get to Akron?

SINCE George Bush says he's running a Harry Truman, come-from-behind campaign, it is relevant to take a closer look at the famed Truman campaign through the eyes of historian David McCullough in his highly acclaimed new biography, "Truman."

"Were one to pick a single representative day of all the many days in Harry Truman's drive for the presidency in 1948," Mr. McCullough writes, "a day that in spirit and content could serve as a classic passage in his whistle-stop odyssey, probably it would be Monday, October 11, when he barnstormed through central Ohio as a start of what was to prove a crucial swing into the middle west." That day Truman made 11 speeches in 15 hours, hammering away on his favorite themes.

After a dreary start, the crowds began to get bigger and more responsive. By the time Truman arrived that evening in Akron, Ohio, the crowds were "tumultuous." Truman told his audience: "I have lived a long time - 64 years - and I have traveled a lot, but I have never seen such turnouts ... the Republicans have the propaganda and the money but we have the people, and the people have the votes. That's why we're going to win."

The next day Newsweek magazine announced a survey it had taken among 50 highly regarded political writers on how they thought the election would turn out. The result: 50 for Dewey, 0 for Truman. McCullough tells us that when presidential adviser Clark Clifford showed the poll to Truman, he looked at it and said: "I know every one of those 50 fellows. There isn't one of them who has enough sense to pound sand in a rathole."

In early June of this year a group of leading Washington journalists was polled and saw, in a three-way race, Mr. Bush beating Bill Clinton by 2 to 1 and Ross Perot by 3 to 1. But now it is difficult to find any of my colleagues who says he thinks Mr. Clinton can lose. Indeed, a 50 to 0 vote for the Arkansas governor would probably be forthcoming.

Count me as a "maybe" voter on the outcome of the November election. I have been covering the political beat now for a long, long time. And I have come to believe what a highly respected old-timer in this business once told me: "The unpredictable is the norm in politics." This was the Monitor's Richard L. Strout, who in my opinion will be among the first to be selected if a political writers' Hall of Fame is ever created.

Mr. Strout could speak from bitter experience. He had been among those polled by Newsweek and had joined in the unanimous prediction of a Dewey victory. Strout was quick to pick up and report on the sign of the revived crowd interest in Truman starting on Oct. 11. But he said that he - like almost everyone else in the press - still was surprised by the outcome.

My "maybe" isn't a resounding one. I'm focusing on the continuing "softness" in voter opinion which the polls keep showing. A lot of voters who are leaning one way or the other still say they haven't made up their minds completely. One study that caught my eye showed that 3 out of every 5 respondents who said they were voting for Clinton went on to say that this was more an anti-Bush position than one that was really pro-Clinton. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of all-out, enthusiastic support for Clinton out there among the electorate.

So there is - and has been for a long time - the theoretical potential for Bush to turn people around and to win.

But it is abundantly clear that Bush's obstacles are immense. To begin with, Clinton is no Dewey. Dewey was always so formal, so aloof - looking like a stuffed shirt to many voters. Clinton, of course, is a good 'ol boy, a dedicated mixer. Bush moves very well among people, too, but he has no edge there.

Then there's the recession. That's what really drags Bush down. Oh, yes, he is being hit hard for so many alleged failings: on how he has dealt with education, the environment, crime and drugs, the nation's infrastructure, China, Iraq, Iran-contra, and on and on. But I am convinced that without the sour economy, none of these charges would stick and hurt so persistently.

So where is Bush today? Has he arrived at or is he about to arrive at a turnaround? I keep watching and, in the face of the polls and conventional wisdom, keep thinking that Bush - like Truman - still might reach his own Akron, Ohio, campaign stop.

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