CHIPPEWA FALLS, WIS. — CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. -- Late Saturday night, at the end of the final whistle-stop train trip of George Bush's political career, win or lose, the president stood on the back platform of his car and spoke in a hoarse voice beneath a huge fireworks display. When he had finished, it was ignited to show a fiery American flag and two words: "Trust Bush."
And that, in the end, was what it came down to -- or, rather, the flip side: Don't trust Clinton.
Everywhere along the 279-mile route of the final Bush whistle-stop, and subsequent campaigning over the final weekend, the visual exhortations accentuated the positive. But Bush's own message was -- as it had been against Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 -- that you can't trust the other guy.
After months of trying to find the most effective formula for hammering Bill Clinton with the issue of trust, the president's strategists finally struck on the one they felt best combined Bush's strength and Clinton's weakness: foreign policy.
It was cast in the most ominous of doomsday terms, even though the Cold War is over and the nuclear genie, if not quite put back in the bottle, has seen its motivation for action drastically reduced by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the train depot in Burlington at the start of the whistle-stop tour through a chilly and gray rural Wisconsin, Bush conjured up "some sudden upheaval, some terrorist getting hold of a nuclear weapon," and asked his listeners to imagine how they would feel if Clinton were in the White House at the time.
He asked them to "close your eyes, imagine in that dangerous situation an American leader without any experience, completely untested, a leader about whom literally we know very, very little. And what we do know is . . . this pattern of indecisiveness" as illustrated, he said, by Clinton's vague and conditional support of the American use of force in the Persian Gulf war.
At Stevens Point, Bush warned of a "terrorist dictator" with a nuclear weapon, and he expressed pride that "these kids here go to bed at night without the same fear of nuclear war that their parents had."
For weeks, the president had been attempting to persuade voters to support him on the basis of a warmed-over plan for economic recovery at home and signs that the economy was at && last growing -- "albeit anemically," as he himself put it. Now he was going back to the world scene, where he remained a figure of stature and experience.
Ironically, just as he made the switch, the old specter of his role in the Iran-contra affair was thrust front and center again with the release of a 1986 memo by Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger indicating that Bush had been "in the loop" after all, knowing about and supporting the deal with Iran swapping arms for hostages.
Flying over the Bush train at Burlington was a small plane towing a sign that read: "Iran-contra Haunts You." And it was right. Bush along the route was obliged to deny the report, at one point calling it part of a "Democratic witch hunt."
The only way Clinton could win, he said, was "some last-minute smoking gun" -- although it was not Clinton but a Republican, the special prosecutor in the indictment of Weinberger, who had released the memo. In any event, the development was the last thing Bush needed on the campaign's final weekend.
It did not prevent him, however, from pressing the trust issue vigorously to the very end, in the context of the risk in putting a man with no significant foreign-policy experience in the White House in a world not yet rid of the nuclear peril.
On one level, both Bush and Clinton sought to deal with the trust issue with humor. Bush told weekend crowds that, considering what he called Clinton's "pattern of deception," having his character and trustworthiness questioned by him was "like being called ugly by a frog." Clinton, in Georgia, said that charges of mistrust, coming from Bush, was "like appointing General Sherman fire commissioner of Atlanta."
But it's likely that the election had, indeed, come down to trust. And Bush -- haunted by "Read my lips" more than by Iran-contra -- turned in the end to his reputation as a world leader, with an assist from that nuclear terrorist, to make his final case to the voters, and against Clinton.