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Sasso: Dukakis' Vital Missing Link

The Running Arguments: A continuing series surveying the Presidential Campaign and Candidates.

September 11, 1988|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, was Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — John Sasso may be Michael S. Dukakis' Man for all Seasons. He may have to be. The campaign's transition from primary season to general election has been rough. This change has been historically difficult for presidential campaigns. Witness the loud--and justified--complaints about George Bush's inactivity between clinching the nomination in March and the Republican Convention in August.

The current complaints from the Republicans aimed at Sasso are the least of his problems. Dukakis' new vice chairman has rejoined a campaign where the parts are running better than the whole. The organization is doing its thing; the candidate is doing his. What is missing has been someone with the governor's confidence to connect the candidate and campaign politically, integrating the two behind a flexible strategy of attack and response.

As Sasso looks at the problems his candidate faces in the next two months, setting priorities must be his immediate task. The goals are not hard to uncover.

Dukakis' message has been attacked from all sides for vagueness. In fact, the unclear message was ideal for the primaries--where it neutralized interest groups and allowed a strong showing in widely separated regions. Now, however, a national media audience needs a few good reasons to vote for Dukakis, or at least against Bush. This message has to go beyond good jobs at good wages. It must take the prosperity widely touted by the GOP and redefine it to ask who is benefitting, who is not--and why.

Campaign commercials need to reinforce this message. Recent Dukakis commercials are slick and effective but only part of the answer. They help you feel good about the Duke and begin to lay out a message of economic fairness. That message needs to be expanded to include attacks on Bush and the Republicans for not understanding problems of the middle class and the poor. In other words, it's time for some class warfare. Bush has been let off the hook for being an elitist, out of touch with common folks. It's time to hang him back up. Ads are a way to do that.

The debates, a third point on the Sasso agenda, have the potential of deciding this race. The stakes are enormous. Having conceded to the Bush forces on the number of debates, Dukakis now has to force the format to meet his objectives. This means allowing Dukakis the greatest possible access to Bush--hence the fewest possible panelists between the two. Sasso should also push to have the first debate center on foreign policy and defense as a way of raising expectations for Bush, highlighting any mistakes he may make.

Dukakis also has to make greater use of his position as leader of the Democrats. There are a number of party big shots identified by the public with critical issues on which Dukakis needs bolstering and Bush needs deflating. These surrogates are not difficult to identify--for starters, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia on defense, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri on international competition and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey on a host of middle-class issues. Put them on the trail and let the Bush-bashing begin.

The best-known Democratic surrogate may be the biggest Democratic problem: Jesse Jackson is feeling ignored. On a number of issues, from voter registration to campaign staffing, Jackson believes he is being dealt with in the worst possible way--not at all. The bottom may have been reached last week when Dukakis went to Chicago, met with local pols and didn't invite Jackson. Sasso met with him a few days ago and relations can be expected to improve. They need to.

The rumor mill is churning with stories of Sasso replacing campaign manager Susan Estrich. In fact, Estrich has run a good campaign since taking over last fall. Even now, in spite of all the pundits pontificating, the campaign staff is doing what should be done: putting troops in the field, raising money and organizing the fall campaign.

But the candidate has not moved with the campaign. Dukakis has become detached from what his organization is doing and where his campaign is going. Between the candidate and the campaign, a gap of understanding, perhaps of trust, has arisen. Politically, Sasso has to be that missing link.

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