INDEPENDENCE, Mo. - Gov. Bill Clinton and President Bush kicked off the fall campaign Labor Day by sparring over who is more like Harry Truman, the plain-speaking former president who never tried to be anybody but himself.
Democratic nominee Clinton even traveled to fellow Democrat Truman's hometown yesterday to give a populist speech in the Truman mold while deriding Bush for the "hypocrisy" of claiming Truman's mantle.
Clinton mocked Bush by referring to Truman's most famous saying, "The buck stops here."
"The buck doesn't stop with George Bush. It doesn't even slow down there," Clinton said, accusing the president of blaming others for the country's problems.
Meanwhile, Bush continued to tie himself to the 33rd president at a speech in Waukesha, Wis., where he adopted the Trumanesque tactic of blaming Congress for most of his problems.
Truman won one of the most unexpected come-from-behind victories in presidential history in 1948, when he defeated Thomas Dewey partly by running against a Republican Congress.
"Harry Truman was frustrated by what he called the `do-nothing Congress,' " Bush said. "The (current) gridlocked Congress hasn't listened to people either."
The idea that two Ivy League graduates - one born to wealth and privilege, the other a career politician who has struggled to shake a reputation for his evasiveness on issues - would cast themselves as the earthy, largely self-educated Truman may seem improbable.
But Truman, who who was highly unpopular during most of his presidency, has become a symbol of old-fashioned political virtues such as honesty, hard work and accepting responsibility.
Facing a 1992 electorate surly and suspicious of all elected officials, Bush and Clinton have turned to the past for a trustworthy political persona.
Clinton ignored lightning, thunder and a downpour to speak to thousands at the Jackson County Courthouse here.
"I'll stay in the rain if you will," he said to the crowd. "Folks, we've had 12 years of trickle-down; we can take 12 more minutes of it to turn our country around."
In front of a bronze statue of the 33rd president, Clinton all but claimed the Truman mantle.
"If you give me a chance at the end of the Cold War," he said, "I will do what Harry Truman did at the end of World War II - more opportunity, more responsibility, an America strong at home as well as abroad."
Clinton hammered at the inconsistencies between Bush and Truman.
"Harry Truman's legacy is the great American middle class," Clinton declared, emphasizing his own middle class roots. ". . . George Bush's legacy is the destruction of that very middle class." Truman, he said, was the working people's president.
The Democratic nominee said Bush "has spent his four years fighting against everything that Harry Truman fought for, and we won't let him forget it in the last eight weeks of this election."
Bush had a slightly harder time tying himself to the former president.
He admitted yesterday that he voted against Truman and doesn't share his philosophy of activist government. But Bush drew parallels between his battles with a Democratic Congress and Truman's fight with a Republican legislature.
Bush also noted that he and Truman both spent time in private business and served their country in the military, a not-so-subtle reference to Clinton's lack of military service.
Most of all, Bush, who trails in all polls, relishes casting himself as a scrappy come-from-behind campaigner in the manner of Truman in 1948.
"Harry Truman ran as an underdog and he liked it and so do I," Bush said yesterday.