ON HIS 1948 WHISTLE-STOP TOUR, Harry Truman, the icon of political underdogs, recalled an epitaph from a Tombstone, Arizona, cemetery and made it his battle cry: "He done his damnedest." Hopelessly behind in the closing days of his 1996 challenge to Bill Clinton, underdog Bob Dole made certain that no one would say anything less of him. The Republican nominee campaigned late into the night, forgoing food and sleep, and literally talked himself hoarse. "I trust the people," he rasped in West Covina, California, nearing the end of his self-imposed ordeal. "Look at my record," Dole demanded. "I look for your active help for the next fortyeight hours. Thank you very much and God bless America."
It was not much of a message. But even when his voice was hale and hearty, Bob Dole had little of consequence to say to the voters. Ambitious and forceful, a masterful legislator, and a shrewd judge of other politicians, he had miscalculated his own ability to adjust to the bizarre process of running for president. He had waged a brain-dead campaign.
Amidst the dying embers of his candidacy, Republican Dole often talked admiringly of Democrat Truman and his improbable 1948 victory over Thomas E. Dewey. That campaign had become part of the folklore of American politics. Never mind that the science of polling today has advanced far beyond its stage in 1948, when pollsters quit taking surveys weeks before the election. The photo of the victorious Truman holding aloft the Chicago Tribune with its monumentally inaccurate banner headline had been stamped in the minds of front-runners and long shots alike.
"Here's a man," Dole said of Truman, as his campaign raced on toward his own rendezvous with defeat, "who's a plainspoken man, and he never gave up. He was way behind in the polls. The Chicago Tribune said "Dewey Wins.' The truth of the matter is that Truman won. And won by just hanging on his message. Defying the odds. Hanging in there."