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In Bush's campaign, echoes of Truman

WASHINGTON -- With its turn-of-the-century atmosphere and small-town pride, Independence, Mo., is a living shrine to the man who carried its values -- unpretentiousness and Midwestern common sense -- across the country and used them to shape the post-World War II world.

Harry Truman, the former farmer and haberdasher who became president after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, is remembered for something else: He is the last incumbent president to win over large numbers of late-deciding voters en route to a second-term victory.

President Bush's 22-year-old daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were probably not aware of that history when they visited Independence Thursday to give a pep talk to local Republicans: Their speech ("full of humor and Texas charm," according to the Kansas City Star) tilted more toward personal anecdotes than presidential history.

Bush wants nothing more than to close this campaign like Truman did in 1948, rousing average Americans and annoying the East Coast establishment with a torrent of rhetoric that some would call negative campaigning but others would call straight talk.

"You don't get any double-talk from me," Truman declared in Sparks, Nev., according to David McCullough's biography. "I'm either for something or against it, and you know it."

Bush, whose own mantra is "You know where I stand," shares more with Truman than just a reputation for being stubborn. Both men found themselves in command of the United States at crucial moments, and neither was fully prepared for the task.

Truman was a moderately respected senator tapped by the Democratic convention to run for vice president in 1944. Though many people close to President Roosevelt sensed he was in failing health, most who chose Truman to be his running mate didn't know of Roosevelt's afflictions; they measured Truman by the usual political calculations. His chairmanship of a committee investigating war profiteering had established him as a clean, fresh face who might help the party avoid allegations of being lazy or corrupt after 12 years in power.

Eight months after his surprise nomination, Truman was commander in chief for the closing months of World War II.

No one was casting about for a wartime leader when Bush won the Republican nomination in 2000. But after eking out a disputed victory over Al Gore, Bush found himself in the White House during the worst terrorist attack in the nation's history, followed by two wars.

Both Truman and Bush won admiration for their quick transitions from being amiable, lightly regarded figures to powerful, decisive presidents. But as the challenges became more complex, and opposition mounted, perceived deficiencies in stature began to haunt them.

Each, in his own way, seemed too self-assured. Each answered that he was simply applying the values he had learned over time. In situations that seemed to call for paternal reassurance, neither Truman nor Bush measured up: They were too combative by nature, better suited to political warfare than healing a nation.

By the time they came up for election, each was in some degree of political trouble. Truman was worse off, though the condition of the country was far better, enjoying a great rush of postwar prosperity. Bush is in better shape, with a narrow lead in most polls, but problems with Iraq and the economy put his reelection in doubt.

But Bush's thin lead has undercut the Truman-like campaign he wanted to run. In the spring and early summer, Bush unloaded in a series of attack ads on Democrat John F. Kerry, a high-toned Northeasterner who bears some similarities to Truman's opponent, Thomas Dewey of New York.

Truman was so far behind in the polls that he could turn Dewey into the incumbent, making stirring populist attacks against Wall Street Republicanism. It helped Truman that the GOP controlled both houses of Congress; unpopular programs, even those signed by Truman, got laid at their doorstep, not his.

Though Bush leads a united government, he and his party still think like outsiders fighting an East Coast foreign-policy establishment that would far prefer to have Kerry running the country. Bush's efforts to portray the Iraq War as a bare-knuckle attempt to fight back in a "post-Sept. 11 world" are appeals for populist support.

But as long as Bush remains ahead, these attacks on Kerry have limited force: It is Bush who is the president, defending his own turf, and undecided voters are essentially making a decision on him. And anyone with doubts this late in a presidency is unlikely to make a positive decision. In every election since Truman's win in 1948, with the exception of a few landslides, late-deciding voters went with the challenger.

This is reason for concern for Bush, and why he may come to regret the polls that today give him leads of between 2 and 8 percentage points. Truman was down by 6 in the last Gallup poll, two weeks before the election, enough of an edge to keep Dewey on the defensive and allow Truman to take the election by a surprisingly solid margin.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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