No more stay-home candidates

March 15, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - There was a time when presidents seeking re-election adopted a strategy of staying home and above the political fray, seldom even acknowledging their opposition, and certainly not by name or inference.

No more. With about eight months to go before the 2004 election, President Bush has jumped with both feet into the race, hammering Sen. John Kerry on the stump and in hard-hitting television commercials.

His decision to do so suggests a new urgency among his strategists to throw Mr. Kerry on the defensive, possibly at the risk of diminishing somewhat his own greatest advantage - his incumbency and stature as the national leader too engaged running the country to "stoop" to partisan politics.

Coming so early in the campaign, it's a particularly notable break from tradition. Indeed, from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln and beyond, most presidential candidates, including incumbents, hardly ever campaigned for election. They remained at home, leaving to surrogates the onerous task of asking the public for votes from the stump.

John Quincy Adams, up for re-election in 1828, haughtily declared, "If my country wants my services, she must ask for them." He stayed in the White House, and when the nation as a whole didn't ask, he had to move out to make way for Andrew Jackson, who also largely eschewed the campaign trail, but successfully.

With the presidential candidates thus physically removed from the direct quest for voter support, their campaigns in the hands of subordinates descended over time to uncharted depths of negativism and smear, about which the candidates could disclaim responsibility.

In 1848, Whig candidate Zachary Taylor declared he would not campaign so that he could accept the presidency "untrammeled" by commitments, and hence could serve "as a president of the nation and not a party." When his allegiance to his party was questioned, he said only, "I am a Whig, but not an ultra-Whig. I trust I will not be again called on to make further explanations."

Even in 1860, when Democrat Stephen Douglas bucked tradition and campaigned aggressively in 23 states, Lincoln stayed off the campaign trail and was elected easily in a four-man field. And in 1872, when Democrat Horace Greeley also stumped energetically, incumbent Republican U.S. Grant stayed home and handed him the worst Democratic defeat of the century.

In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison campaigned and won from his home in Indianapolis. In 1896, William McKinley followed suit with his front-porch campaign in Canton, Ohio. As the young Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, crossed the country by whistle-stop train, the older Mr. McKinley declared: "I might just as well put up a trampoline on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan. I have to think when I speak."

The front porch was replaced by the whistle-stop train in 1912 when Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Progressive Theodore Roosevelt both toured the country speaking several times a day. But in 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding successfully resurrected front-porch campaigning from his Marion, Ohio, home.

The advent of presidential primaries forced candidates into public view earlier than ever, though campaigning usually waited until after the nominating conventions.

Today, however, with the major party nominees all but selected as a result of front-loading the primaries, the conventions are mere coronations, so the country is in for possibly the longest general election presidential campaign in history. And judging from the opening volleys from both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush, it could be one of the harshest ever.

Mr. Bush already is out of the White House and on the trail with a hard-hitting attack on Mr. Kerry. And Mr. Kerry is vowing to give as good as he gets.

We've sure come a long way from stay-at-home presidential candidates and front-porch campaigning. As the Bush vs. Kerry clamor continues and grows more heated through the spring, voters may well find themselves wishing for the good old days.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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