WASHINGTON — For the first time in the campaign, tonight in North Carolina, George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis will meet face to face. With a television audience that may reach more than 100 million viewers and the race for the presidency almost a dead heat, the stakes are high. More people will watch the debate than will actually vote.
Dukakis has been defending himself since Labor Day and he must use the debate to change the direction of the campaign. Bush must keep playing the offense and not just play it safe.
Though the Bush campaign is doing well and Dukakis is on the defensive, according to recent polls, neither man has yet kindled the kind of enthusiasm with voters that allows a candidate to survive a campaign stumble without taking a tumble with the public. Both camps are acutely aware that the sparks that fly in this debate may be what lights a fire in the bellies of their supporters or shifts undecided voters. It promises to be high political drama.
Until now, contrasts between the two men have been relayed to voters through television sound bites on the evening news, newspaper reports and their great convention speeches. None of these modes of communication has the power or immediacy of a direct exchange. This debate will do more to shape perceptions of the candidates than all the previous months of campaigning.
My advice to Bush is:
-- Remember Dukakis and you are not alone in this debate. There will also be a panel of journalists. They have their own agenda for this debate. Stick to your own game plan. Answer the questions the way you want.
-- Even though most national polls show the race is close, the momentum is going your way. Most voters believe if you are President it is more likely that the economy will be better, illegal drugs will be reduced, taxes will be kept down and defenses will stay strong. These are strengths you should stress. Reinforce those images every chance you get.
-- Dukakis is trying to convince voters that he has the experience to be President. The goal in this debate is to set a contrast between your experience in the big leagues and his exaggerations. The best way of doing that is to use the debate to unmask Dukakis' real record as governor of Massachusetts. The loss of manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts, the fact that 48 other governors also balance their budgets because state constitutions require it and Dukakis' liberal values speak for themselves.
-- Don't let this debate be about the last eight years under Ronald Reagan. Make it about leadership during the next four years. The voters seem volatile in the polls because they seek a candidate they can have confidence in. That is why the negative attacks on Dukakis' veto of the Pledge of Allegiance bill and his prisoner-furlough program are effective--they call into question Dukakis' judgment and basic values.
-- Be presidential. Take the high road and don't be derogatory toward Dukakis. Also, don't be defensive when Dukakis attacks you on the Iran-Contra affair, your vice presidential nominee or Gen. Manuel A. Noriega. The public has been exposed to these issues and decided that they do not disqualify you as a presidential contender.
A good performance will light a fire in your constituency. You enter this debate from a position of strength. Dukakis has much to prove and many doubts to dispel. You need to do little more than keep him honest.