ATLANTA — After months of waxing passionate about issues like cluster housing and photovoltaics, Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis arrived in the South Wednesday with a surprising new message.
He's the toughest guy on the Democratic block.
The issue came up when a reporter asked the usually mild-mannered Massachusetts governor about his defense policies, noting that rival candidate Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. was "toughest" on defense.
"I don't think he's the toughest," Dukakis interrupted sharply. "I don't think he's the toughest at all.
An Uncharacteristic Bite
"I don't yield in toughness to Al Gore in any way, shape or manner," Dukakis added, with an uncharacteristic bite in his voice.
Dukakis' sudden saber rattling, hours after winning the New Hampshire primary, reflects the front-runner's concern that a Northern liberal with a reputation as a cool technocrat will be seen as weak on defense in the conservative South.
But the opening salvo sparked a war of words with Gore. Gore attacked Dukakis repeatedly Wednesday during campaign stops in Louisiana and Texas.
"Gov. Michael Dukakis does not have a single day of foreign policy experience," Gore said. "He said it would be perfectly all right with him for the Soviet Union to establish a client state on the mainland of the American continent. Now that reflects a lack of experience.
"After seven years of Ronald Reagan, do we want another President who doesn't know beans about foreign policy or what this country ought to be doing in the world?" Gore said.
In a hardening of previous statements, Dukakis said it is "absolutely essential that we have the right to use military force against terrorist base camps or terrorist installations."
But Dukakis said he has no "hard and fast rules" for when to use American military force. He cited President Kennedy's threats to use force against Cuba during the missile crisis in October, 1962, as "proper and necessary and I'd do the same."
Dukakis said the United States has the right to defend its interests and its allies in the Americas, but added that "we have no right to overthrow governments that we don't agree with," he said. "And that's what we've been doing in Central America."
Fourteen Southern and Border states vote on Super Tuesday, March 8. Polls show Southern voters are increasingly concerned that Democratic candidates are unwilling to use military force to guard against Soviet aggression or terrorism.
Gore quit the Iowa caucuses and ran fifth in New Hampshire. But he is campaigning heavily on defense issues and hopes to launch his campaign with Southern support on Super Tuesday.
Opposition to 'Star Wars'
All Democrats in the race oppose the Reagan Administration's Strategic Defense Initiative, called "Star Wars," and further development of the MX missile. All support the INF treaty eliminating medium and shorter range nuclear missiles.
But Gore and Dukakis have battled over Gore's support of the Midgetman, an unusually expensive single-warhead mobile missile system. "He wants to spend $50 billion on the Midgetman missile," Dukakis told reporters. "I think we ought to put some of those resources into conventional forces."
Aides say Dukakis also took the offensive here to counter another rival, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. Gephardt's emotional populist slogan--"It's your fight too!"--has helped him win support from blue-collar voters and conservative Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Dukakis campaigned in Iowa with impassioned pleas against aid to the Contras. He hardened his military message somewhat in a speech last Sunday in Derry, N.H., arguing that America can be "strong" only if foreign policy is "true to our principles and our values."
Dukakis repeated key sections of the Derry speech here Wednesday when he addressed a curious lunchtime crowd of about 400 office workers and supporters in a futuristic atrium in the CNN Center.
"There's nothing strong" he said, "about wandering around the Persian Gulf without a minesweeper," or "blowing up health clinics or farm co-ops in Nicaragua."
Defense Views Questioned
But the press conference that followed showed he isn't in dovish Iowa or friendly New Hampshire any longer. More than half of the questions pressed Dukakis on his defense views and lack of experience.
Dukakis said the candidate with the "longest foreign policy resume," Vice President Bush, had "done nothing" when President Reagan "traded arms to the ayatollah."
"It's not the length of your resume," he said. "It's your values. It's your ability to pick good people. It's a sense of history."
Dukakis responded calmly when a reporter asked whether he wasn't an outsider, "even a carpetbagger" trying to woo the South.
"There's a mythology that the South is some kind of foreign country," Dukakis said. "It's nonsense. Nonsense. When it comes to basic goals and values, basic dreams, we are one country."