The new Bush ads also work hard to emphasize that Bush has personal warmth and character, showing him in casual clothes at a family gathering. One ad ends with the tag line: "The President, the heart, the soul, the conscience of the nation."
The Republicans "understand that their weak spot is stature," said Democratic media consultant Robert Squier. "If they don't make him presidential they are a stone loser."
Kathleen Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Texas who specializes in political advertising, also thinks the Bush spots are carefully designed to preempt anticipated criticism about Bush's weak character.
Another Bush ad quotes him as saying he wants "a kinder, gentler nation." That implicit distinction from Reagan, Jamieson said, helps protect Bush from Dukakis criticism against the Administration.
For his part, Dukakis is employing a combination of attack and biography ads, a classic mix in a negative campaign, for one cannot attack an opponent safely, media consultants caution, without asserting somehow something positive about oneself.
The ads are produced by a consortium of political consultants and Madison Avenue ad men, led by political consultant Scott Miller of the Sawyer Miller Group and Madison Avenue ad man Gary Susnjara, president of Saatchi & Saatchi, North America.
One attack ad, technically produced by the Democratic Party, shows a close-up of a man asking for a loan and laughing:
"Hey pal, how 'bout a couple hundred billion? I'll pay you right back."
"1980, National Debt $900 million," says the text on screen.
"This is what the Republicans call managing the economy," says an announcer.
As the ad progresses, the deficit numbers grow bigger until the man asking for the loan says: "Hey pal, just a few more years, that's all I need."
In 1984, said Jamieson, the Democrats "tried every means they could think of to make the deficit salient to voters and failed. This time they are trying humor, because typically humor gets people to talk about the ad, and that will push the deficit back into conversation."
Dukakis' other national ad emphasizes his record:
"He turned around a 10-year economic slide and created a boom that has made Massachusetts one of the hottest economies in the country," intones the offscreen announcer.
To Jamieson, the ads suggest Dukakis' essential political problem. Both these arguments may not work, no matter how good the ads are, if people believe the economy is sound.
Republican consultant Mahe had another criticism. Competence alone is not a compelling issue, he said. Unless Dukakis starts talking about his own character he will have troubles.
"I want to know what you will do first before I know how well you're going to do it," Mahe said. In the absence of that, Dukakis will end up having to attack, to show that "somehow Bush personally isn't up to the job."
Among the areas where Dukakis can attack, media consultants suggested, is on Bush's cooperation as CIA director and later as vice president with Panamanian leader Manuel A. Noriega, who has been indicted by two U.S. grand juries on drug-trafficking charges.
The Republicans, for their part, will likely be ready with ads attacking Dukakis for lack of experience on defense and foreign policy, the economy and on social issues.