WASHINGTON — Is tonight's debate important for Michael S. Dukakis? Of course. Will it decide the outcome of the election? Probably not. Will it slow down George Bush's momentum? Maybe.
These and other questions will be answered this evening, but one thing is already clear. This debate is mostly about Dukakis. And it's not whether he is a good debater or not, it's whether Dukakis can define himself as a flesh-and-blood candidate for millions of undecided voters in TV-land who just can't seem to get a handle on this guy from Massachusetts. For Dukakis, tonight's debate is about soul.
The U.S. electorate puts a lot of trust in what they "feel" about a candidate--whether they get the sense they know him and can understand what drives him. For Dukakis, the jury is still out. In a Peter Hart poll of major states taken in early September, 37% of the voters said they didn't know enough about Dukakis to vote for him. This is not to say they will vote against him. They simply need to know more about him before they will vote for him.
And so tonight Dukakis must define himself not only against Bush, but against a general perception that he is a vague, somewhat cold, reserved personality. This means employing issues as a candidate rather than as a manager. Dukakis has to use issues to project personality, not to make policy. When people know where he's come from, they will also know how he came to embrace the themes of his campaign. Dukakis has been too cool by half on TV, a medium that generally rewards this quality. He has to loosen up to allow viewers to "feel" him.
His roots as an immigrant's son are important--one of the few aspects of his background successfully moved to the foreground. But he's also a father with children in college. He's lived in a big city and knows the tensions of urban America. He's a homeowner, a former Army enlisted man and a reform governor.
And before this goes much further he ought to remind people that he's at least as patriotic as the born-again chauvinist across the stage. Make no mistake, the unpatriotic charges against Dukakis have left scars.
One wonders whether the faceless managers with their charts and polls, who first programmed Bush with his "pledge pitch," have any idea what the flag and patriotism mean. These are consultants, as cynical as the recent tapes on the 1984 Reagan campaign make clear, who have done quite well in this country. Yet they shamefully use the flag, cheapening patriotism to serve their partisan interests. There is the arrogance of the well-born in this, laughing at the rituals of those they think beneath them while exploiting these symbols for their own ends.
Dukakis should say to his opponent: I don't need any lectures from Mr. Bush on patriotism. By choosing this country, my parents gave me more than money and privilege. They showed me by example the value of freedom. And the flag that stands for this freedom means too much to be used for getting votes.
Besides baring a bit of his soul, Dukakis and his people need to do some work before 5 p.m. today. They need to dispel the press characterization of the debate as the be-all and end-all of the campaign. This sets up a situation where Dukakis has to win--and a draw is seen as a loss.
They need to point out other important aspects of the campaign, and remind the voters that many past debates have been draws. Dukakis should reinforce the notion that this debate is not a campaign-ender and a tie is not a loss.
Dukakis should also squash the conventional wisdom that he is expected to win. This is part of the amateurish spin put out by Roger Ailes and company. It is nonsense. The front-runner has, and should have, the higher expectations on him, and Bush is now unquestionably the front-runner.
Dukakis has to make clear that he's the underdog, that Bush did a good job on the GOP debates and that Bush, not Dukakis, has had experience at presidential-level debates in 1980 and 1984. Other than Barbara Bush's alleged inability to stay awake when her husband talks, there is little to suggest Bush will not give a formidable performance.
But expectations and spins and strategy aside, debates come back to the debaters. In this case, to the new kid on the block: Mike, show us what ya got.