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Dukakis on Tightrope: He Can't Just Win in N.H., He Needs to Win Big

September 26, 1987|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Shortly before he joined the presidential race last March, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis was invited to speak to more than 600 New Hampshire Democratic activists here. Given the audience and location, his staff members took no chances.

"They told him to put his hands on the podium when he started speaking," said J. Joseph Grandmaison, the state party chairman. "Then they put sticky tape on the podium so his hands would stick there. That way, he'd remember not to wave his arms around. He's his own worst enemy when he waves his hands."

Six months later, Dukakis is still taking few chances in the critical first-in-the-nation primary. The "Duke," viewed as a favorite son, has begun to build a solid campaign organization and leads decisively in early state polls. Today, aides say he will lead 1,400 volunteers in the campaign's first statewide door-to-door canvass.

Huge War Chest

More than 50,000 New Hampshire residents go to work each morning in Massachusetts. Thousands more see lavish Dukakis coverage in Boston newspapers and on TV. He is instantly recognized on the street. And money is no problem: On Tuesday, he is expected to announce that he has raised $7.9 million so far nationwide, more than twice that of any other Democrat.

"I think his lead here is enormous," said rival candidate Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri congressman who has campaigned here for two years. "I think he'd be very hard to beat. . . . My hope would be to come in second."

But campaign strategists and analysts say the 53-year-old Dukakis is walking a political tightrope in the volatile Feb. 16 New Hampshire primary. In some ways, they say, the three-term Massachusetts governor may be most vulnerable in his own backyard.

"I believe New Hampshire could end his candidacy," said Grandmaison, who managed Dukakis' first gubernatorial campaign in 1974. "I told him this could be more of a danger to him than an advantage. . . . People say he's got it wrapped up. He knows better."

Vicious Political Game

The chief reason is expectations, the vicious political game that has destroyed many a candidate here. New Hampshire Democrats, after all, knocked off incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 by giving an anti-Vietnam War candidate, Eugene J. McCarthy, a "better than expected" second place.

Nor are favorite sons necessarily favored. Maine's Sen. Edmund S. Muskie lost here in 1972, despite winning the most votes, because he did not get a predicted 50%. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts did even worse in 1980, losing to a weak incumbent, President Jimmy Carter.

The usually confident Dukakis carefully downplays his chances. "I think it's going to be a very lively and hot contest," he said in an interview. "I want to do well." An August poll that showed him with 52% of the vote was "meaningless, absolutely meaningless," he said.

But opponents are happy to play the game. Their aides tell reporters that Dukakis needs 50% or 60% of the vote to show that he is not just a regional candidate, knowing that that percentage is probably impossible to achieve in a six-person race. And they assume that his high numbers in the polls will fall as rivals become better known.

"I don't think he can go anywhere but down," said Dave Lewis, state field director for former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, "which is fine with us."

Iowa Can Give Impetus

Dukakis faces another hazard here. As then-Sen. Gary Hart demonstrated in 1984, a strong showing in Iowa's precinct caucuses can propel a little-known insurgent to victory over a front-runner in New Hampshire a week later.

"Iowa is crucial for Dukakis," said David Moore, a University of New Hampshire political scientist and pollster. "If he can't do well in Iowa, if he gets blown away, it's going to be very hard to recover here."

So far, Dukakis has spent more time and five times as much money in Iowa's towns and cornfields than he has in New Hampshire. Partly because of Dukakis' presumed strength here, other candidates also have favored Iowa with time, money and resources.

There is another factor, said Jim Carpenito, a lawyer who helped organize a wine-and-cheese party for Dukakis in Salem recently. "There's an overall irrational prejudice about Massachusetts," he said. "People have a distaste for Massachusetts, let us say. And he gets hit with the criticism. . . . It's a tough thing to overcome."

Many voters moved to New Hampshire, which has no income or sales tax, to escape a neighbor nationally derided in the 1970s as "Taxachusetts." Although Massachusetts taxes have fallen and the economy is booming, the conservative Union Leader newspaper in Manchester still mocks Dukakis as "Dutaxes." One bumper sticker seen here says, "Live Free or Live in Massachusetts."

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