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Dukakis: Leading by Elimination

April 17, 1988|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal

NEW YORK — Now that New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has removed his shadow from the field, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has a clear shot at finally breaking open the Democratic presidential race.

Tuesday's primary here looms as the pivotal event in the Democratic contest. Unless Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) can break through--and recent polls have been far from encouraging--the race will effectively narrow to a two-man contest between Jesse Jackson and Dukakis. And unless Gore can siphon off enough white votes to drag down Dukakis' total, Dukakis is poised to win New York and re-establish himself as the party's commanding front-runner.

Cuomo's announcement can only reinforce Dukakis' position, for it powerfully reminds Democrats that remaining options are few. To many Democrats, Dukakis looks like the most viable option they have left. If that sounds like a backhanded complement, it is. Leslie Mitchell, a Suffolk County legislative aide who watched Dukakis address an anti-nuclear group on Long Island last week, may be typical when she admits settling on the Massachusetts governor "more through a process of elimination than anything else."

If Dukakis can hold on in New York this week, the party's national leadership and many rank-and-file members are likely to begin echoing those words. Most party leaders, who continue to believe that a Jackson candidacy would precipitate an electoral disaster, would welcome any excuse to rally round a revived Dukakis.

A Dukakis victory this week could hurt Jackson even more by driving the debt-ridden Gore to the sidelines. Though Jackson has made huge strides among white voters in the past six weeks, his loss in Wisconsin suggests he would have great trouble attracting enough white votes to stop Dukakis one-on-one in the remaining states.

Still, Jackson's dramatic gains among white liberals--New York's left-leaning Village Voice and the Nation both endorsed him--betrays the nagging weakness in the governor's campaign: the passion gap. "This is not," said one supporter after watching him at a Los Angeles fund-raiser last month, "a real inspirational guy."

That's more than a problem of personality. By now, it's common for Democrats to complain that Dukakis has no message. But he does--it just isn't gripping. "The message is one of a city manager, not President of the United States," said Dukakis supporter Al Jackson, political director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, the leading liberal political-action committee.

Dukakis has run on competence: an upbeat, pragmatic vision of government, business and labor solving problems together with carefully constructed compromises. Dukakis' vision is, above all, logical--Mr. Spock comes to City Hall.

What this reasonable approach lacks is any hint of populism--specifically, any identifiable enemies. Asked in an interview last summer whether Democrats needed to harness class-based populism in the campaign, Dukakis bristled. "I think that's yesterday," he insisted. "I think people are looking for positive, constructive doers."

Heading into the 1988 campaign, that's what most Democratic strategists thought. But voters apparently have something else in mind. Throughout the primary season, a populist-economic nationalism message has proven to be the most powerful current running through the Democratic field. Jackson has used an electric give-'em-hell message to broaden his base with great effect. Once Jackson raised the ghost of William Jennings Bryan, both Gore and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) infused speeches with the same spirit of attack.

With his back against the wall in Wisconsin, Dukakis uncharacteristically joined in the general condemnation of the Chrysler Corp. for walking away from a plant in Kenosha. But in New York, ahead again in the polls, he has reverted to form. "This country needs healing, it needs unity, it needs a President who brings us together," Dukakis insisted earnestly, if blandly, to one New York group.

Dukakis' cautious approach may yet pay dividends--if he can inch his way to the nomination. It's unlikely that the populism Jackson and others are using could stand by itself as a general-election message while the economy remains strong. And some Republican strategists believe Dukakis' optimistic vision of industrial renewal will serve him well in a general election. "We really haven't had any Democrats who have had much of a vision of economic growth in the past few campaigns," said GOP pollster Lance Tarrance. "To his credit, Dukakis is trying to bump the Democrats out of that."

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