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Dukakis: Stature Gained and Given

The Running Arguments: A Continuing Series Surveying the Presidential Campaign and Candidates

May 22, 1988|Stuart K. Spencer | Stuart K. Spencer was senior campaign adviser to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984

IRVINE — Some pundits talk about a stature gap between Vice President George Bush and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and how Dukakis must do something to increase his "presidential" presence. Something more than winning the primaries and locking up the nomination, I suppose.

Yet the whole issue is somewhat specious. You don't assume stature or pretend stature--like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder. Stature is conferred by a political party when its voters believe a candidate can win. It is gained by winning primaries, looking good in the polls and not putting your foot in your mouth.

Stature is a quality having little to do with physical height (if it did, Jimmy Carter would have lost to President Ford). It has more to do with depth. In a couple of weeks the last four primaries will be held, including California, and the delegate totals will be added up for keeps. They will show Dukakis "over the top," a result of his wins that day and the carefully orchestrated dribs and drabs of "superdelegates," plus other delegates who lost their horses earlier in the process and are now going to the "Duke" camp every day.

Then we enter phase one of the fall campaign, the six weeks from the day after the last primaries to nomination night at the Democratic Convention. This begins Dukakis' main chance to show, not gain, stature the old-fashioned way: having it bestowed upon him by party leaders and the media; taking presidential actions like picking the next vice president of the United States and laying out themes for the future. The candidate moves slowly around the country surrounded by this democracy's only trapping of monarchy, a full Secret Service entourage with lights, bells, whistles and strong-looking guys too young for the hearing aids they wear, guys who talk up their coat sleeves a lot.

These are the weeks to play up your strength. Dukakis' strength is cool, dispassionate decision-making. His first decision will be his running mate, to be weighed cleanly and chosen decisively. Consultation with others, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, is appropriate, but he must avoid even the appearance of bargaining or bartering. Remember the hapless performance of Walter F. Mondale going from one group to another in the early summer of 1984, becoming more and more attached to the tar baby of expediency with each promise made or hinted.

Next comes the Atlanta coronation--five days of captive media, no real fights, lots of unity, a prime time acceptance speech--in short, a campaign manager's dream. A well-run Republican convention is expected, a calm Democratic convention is a plus. Once crowned as a possible President, a nominee has all the stature a candidate could need--or want.

Dukakis' campaign has been helped by the continuing second-best campaign of Jackson. Next to the minister's record and pronouncements, Dukakis looks moderate and reasonable. Bush could have been helped by the continued threat from a "hot" polarizing candidate like Pat Robertson. Sometimes clearing the field too early makes a good candidate look more like a shadow boxer than a fighter; it sometimes also knocks you off the front page.

While Dukakis may want to believe that his later primary victories were caused by voters' careful reading of his position papers, they had more to do with Dukakis being the last guy left standing in the ring with Jackson. Mere survival, however, does not explain his poll standings in trial heats with the vice president. If the poll figures do not absolutely predict a change in partisan control of the White House, they absolutely do predict a clear willingness among the American electorate to consider making such a change.

Good show so far, Mike, but now it starts to get interesting--the veep, the platform and putting together a Northern, Southern, or whatever strategy that can win a majority of the electoral college in November. This is decision time.

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