September 11, 1992|By Theo Lippman Jr.

This is the 52nd presidential election.

The 15th was held in 1844. The Whigs dumped President John Tyler, who had succeeded President Harrison a month into his term, for Henry Clay. Clay had led the congressional fight against Tyler for four years.

The Whig nomination was deemed a real prize after the Democrats nominated James K. Polk, a former governor of Tennessee and former speaker of the House. Polk was lowly regarded. But in the election that gave the American political language the phrase ''dark horse,'' Polk won. The deciding issue was the annexation of Texas. Clay favored a go-slow policy. Polk was for annexation right away. That was what most Southern states wanted -- a big new slave-state partner.

Clay had come out against annexation when he thought his opponent would be Martin Van Buren, who was also opposed to haste on Texas. Now he found the South overwhelmingly against him. He hoped abolitionists in the North would elect him, but an anti-slavery third-party candidate siphoned off enough votes in New York to cost him that state's 36 electors -- and he lost the election to Polk 170 to 105.

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