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Rivals Wound Up Fighting Each Other : The Dukakis Strategy Had a Helping of Luck

February 16, 1988|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

CLAREMONT, N. H. — Michael S. Dukakis, who often cites the classics of Alexis de Tocqueville, quoted a more modern sage here when he dutifully told a crowded auditorium of students at Stevens High School to ignore polls showing him headed for a strong victory in today's New Hampshire primary.

"Please don't pay any attention to these polls," Dukakis pleaded. "As a well-known American philosopher has said: 'It isn't over until it's over.' "

Yogi Berra's warnings notwithstanding, the Massachusetts governor appears to have luck, time and organization on his side as voters go to the polls. Campaign aides and state party officials privately predict that Dukakis, the undisputed front-runner here since announcing his bid last March, could win more than twice as many votes as his nearest rival, shattering previous state primary voting records.

"Everything broke their way this week," said Ramsay McLauchlan, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "Having luck on your side isn't the worst thing for a campaign."

When Dukakis survived last week's Iowa caucuses with a third-place finish, aides initially argued that the race here would be a two-man fight between Dukakis and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt.

Strategy Revised

But their strategy changed when Gephardt and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon began an unexpected bitter battle of words and tactics for second place.

"He's been lucky because everyone's running for second place," said Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group, a Manchester polling company that has tracked the race all week. "I don't know why, but the other guys just left him alone. No one tried to become the clear alternative to Dukakis."

Bennett said Dukakis' support in the state fell from 45% to 35% over the last four days, after Simon and Gephardt began attacking the front-runner as well as each other. But Bennett said the criticism apparently came too little and too late to make up the difference.

Polling all day Monday showed Dukakis holding his margin, with Simon moving up into second place with 13%, followed by Gephardt at 11%, Bennett said. The statistical difference makes the race for second place a dead heat.

"Unless people are lying through their teeth, we don't see any surprises," Bennett added. Dukakis' opposition to the Seabrook nuclear plant is a "deciding factor" for his support. "It still looks like a blowout for Dukakis," he said.

In TV ads and press conferences, Gephardt called Dukakis "one of the biggest tax raisers in Massachusetts history," a reference to Dukakis' imposition of the state's largest tax increase when he was first elected in 1975.

Simon presented himself as the more caring candidate, calling Dukakis a "technocrat," and ending his harshest ad with an excerpt of a local newspaper's endorsement of Simon that says, "President Dukakis would head a bureaucracy. President Simon would head a nation of people."

In an interview in his blue van Sunday afternoon, Dukakis said he was baffled by Gephardt's attack. "I've cut taxes five times in four years," he said. "I think we ought to stick to the issues . . . not say what's wrong with the other guy."

Took the Heat Off

Francis O'Brien, Dukakis' press secretary, said the campaign did not expect the bruising Gephardt-Simon battle. But the effect, he said, was to take the heat off Dukakis during a critical period.

"We could focus on our message," O'Brien said. "We could talk about Seabrook, foreign affairs, the economy and the future."

Most observers said Dukakis effectively won the closely watched Democrats' debate at Saint Anselm College on Saturday by not losing. Although Dukakis aides had expected sharp attacks, Gephardt's defense of his voting record and an aide's harsh language became the focus of the evening. Only former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart took shots at Dukakis.

"Whenever the front-runner can walk out with no scratches, he is in good shape," Robert G. Beckel, a media consultant and former campaign chairman for the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, Walter F. Mondale, told reporters later.

Dukakis could also afford to disappear from the state nearly half of every day last week, returning home to Massachusetts rather than maintaining the intense 18-hour daily campaign schedule of his rivals. Aides denied the plan was to lie low and avoid scrutiny.

"This is not a Rose Garden strategy," said Charlie Baker, Dukakis' state campaign director. "When people attacked us, we responded. We engaged. We corrected the record."

Snowstorm Helps

But aides were delighted when a heavy snowstorm blanketed the state Friday, disrupting the candidates' schedules and effectively freezing the campaign in place for a day. And Dukakis' final TV ad virtually ignored his rivals, instead asking voters to "stand up" for his vision of the future.

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