Bush seeks Democratic votes in land of Truman ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

September 11, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

ST. LOUIS -- Nowhere else is it a harder sell than here in Missouri for President Bush to peddle himself as the Harry S Truman of 1992. The fact that the Republican incumbent, like Truman in 1948, trails his opponent in the polls is about the only similarity that strikes most Missourians, and particularly those old enough to remember the feisty man from Independence.

But winning Democratic votes here is critical to Bush's hopes of carrying Missouri, which went to him four years ago by a narrow 52 percent to 48 percent over Michael Dukakis. Blue-collar Democrats who had defected from their party in 1980 and 1984 for Ronald Reagan also went along with Bush in 1988 as he pledged to continue the Reagan policies.

Bush has tried to make the link with Truman in various ways. The most obvious is his attack on the Democratic-controlled "gridlocked Congress" just as Truman made a whipping boy of the Republican-controlled "do-nothing Congress" 44 years ago. Bush has also compared his own military service with that of Truman, who served in World War I, as a contrast with Bill Clinton's draft avoidance record.

But, as Truman's daughter Margaret has noted pointedly, when it came to political views and policies her father was recognized as a conspicuous champion of the little guy, an image Bush has reached for with little success as Clinton has reminded voters of his Yankee aristocrat heritage.

Still, the Bush-Quayle campaign knows that Bush must keep a large share of those Reagan Democrats in Missouri if he is to win this state again. Although the state has only 11 electoral votes, it is on the GOP "must" list, says Tony Hammond, the Republican '' state committee's executive director, because "California is questionable this year and we have to make up (California's) 54 electoral votes somewhere."

Hammond says that while the Bush re-election campaign is not writing off economically devastated California, the possibility of losing it greatly increases the pressure to win in Missouri and other battleground states.

The focus on Reagan Democrats is so critical here that Ann Wagner, Bush re-election campaign director in Missouri, outdoes even her candidate in trying to kidnap the memory of Missouri's most famous politician. "Harry Truman," she says of the man who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt, "was a Reagan Democrat."

Although Mr. Truman was one of the Senate's strongest supporters of FDR's liberal New Deal agenda before becoming his running mate in 1944, and a loyal heir to its tenets as his successor, Wagner insists he was "a conservative Democrat, much more moderate than Bill Clinton is in his party."

Julie Gibson, Clinton's state coordinator, scoffs at such attempts to claim the Truman mantle in his home state. "People in Missouri see it as outrageous, an abomination. People here understand Truman and the whole Truman tradition of standing up for working people."

At Clinton's Labor Day rally in Independence, Randy Hayden, a 60-year-old dental technician who remembers Truman well, was asked what he thought of Bush's attempt to sell himself as this year's Truman. "It got the response I thought it would get -- a big laugh," he said.

The Clinton campaign is counting heavily on a return to the fold of Reagan Democrats to win Missouri. The unemployment rate here is 6.5 percent despite Republican Gov. John Ashcroft's boast that 39,000 more workers were added to the rolls in the last year and a record number of people were working in the state in July.

But Duke McVey, state president of the AFL-CIO, counters with the claim that Missouri at the same time has lost 55,000 jobs and replacements have been at much lower wages.

One key this year could be St. Louis County, a traditional GOP area casting about 25 percent of the state vote, where the county government was taken over by the Democrats in 1990.

The northern end is heavily blue-collar and Catholic, the Reagan Democrat profile, and the Clinton campaign hopes layoffs and threatened layoffs in auto and aircraft plants will bring these voters home.

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