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How Presidential Race Was Won-and Lost : Michael S. Dukakis

November 10, 1988|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — When Michael S. Dukakis climbed into an M-1A1 battle tank in mid-September, two aides warned him he would look silly, not tough, on TV if he wore the tank's high-tech helmet.

But, moments later, as the giant tank rumbled across a dusty field, the Democratic nominee for President suddenly popped up with a Snoopy-like helmet with earphones on his head and a nervous smile on his face.

"He said he wanted to hear what the other guys in the tank were saying," one aide said. "Fine. But he looked like an idiot."

The tank fiasco--which Republicans gleefully turned into a TV ad--was only a snapshot in Dukakis' 20-month campaign. But it helps explain how and why a nominee who seemed unbeatable in July lost the election to George Bush by a wide margin on Tuesday.

Time and again this fall, Dukakis ignored advice and stubbornly insisted on doing things his way. "He personally reviewed every piece of campaign literature, every ad and, for a while, every hire," said California campaign director Tony Podesta.

Dukakis disdained TV imagery. With no direction, his advertising team wrote so many scripts--1,155 by one count--that some propped up office plants. "He thinks TV commercials are beneath him and silly," said Ken Swope, a longtime media adviser who quit in frustration.

And Dukakis' up-tight, humorless style became a serious liability. When he withered under Ted Koppel's tough questions on "Nightline" two weeks ago, aide Tom Donilon rushed in at the first break. "Get mad, governor!" he said. Dukakis simply stared back.

Faced Peace, Prosperity

It was never going to be easy. Dukakis faced the vice president of a popular leader in a era of peace and prosperity. And, unlike Democrats, the GOP has veterans who have won the White House five out of the last six elections.

But the anatomy of Dukakis' 40-state, $100-million defeat is seen by many as a history of missed opportunities, poor judgment and undeniable arrogance. And, although his staff woefully mis-served him, the candidate himself bears much of the blame.

"There wasn't a strategy for the general election," said one longtime friend and adviser. "There was no program. There was no message. There was no game plan for a national campaign."

It began in Atlanta. Dukakis emerged from the Democratic convention in July with a record war chest, highly favorable polls and party regulars rushing to his side after a powerful acceptance speech.

"He rose to the occasion," said his wife, Kitty. "It was a transcendent moment."

Albatross for Dukakis

But it was an illusion. His claim that the race was "about competence," not "ideology," haunted him as his campaign, and his state government, repeatedly stumbled. "Massachusetts became an albatross, not a model," one adviser said.

Dukakis tried to sit on his lead. Although internal polls showed fewer than half of his supporters could identify any of his policies, he insisted on spending three days a week in August on state business in western Massachusetts.

Then came the gaffes. At a press conference in Louisville, Dukakis criticized White House ethics under President Reagan, using a Greek phrase that translated as a "fish rots from the head down."

Reagan quickly retaliated. He called Dukakis an "invalid," pushing onto the front pages a wild rumor that the Democratic candidate had undergone psychiatric treatment. Dukakis fell 5 points in polls overnight.

" 'Dukakis not crazy. More at 11.' That hurt," said campaign manager Susan Estrich. "It played into the whole issue of risk."

Flag Pledge Issue

At the same time, Dukakis elevated Bush's criticism of the Massachusetts' governor's 1977 veto of a bill requiring teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance by saying that Bush was "not fit to be President."

"He turned it into a presidential issue," said Kirk O'Donnell, a senior adviser. "It wasn't that he didn't respond. It was the wrong response."

In a campaign run by lawyers, Dukakis' own legalistic defense of his veto--and his refusal to fight back against charges about prison furloughs, the death penalty and Boston Harbor pollution--only fed Republican contentions that he and his Boston-based campaign were culturally blind, out of touch with many voters' values.

"The response on the Pledge of Allegiance was designed to win a majority of votes on the Harvard Law School faculty but didn't do anything to answer the issue," said adviser Ralph Whitehead. "They had a tin ear for American mainstream culture."

Aides knew the furlough issue was dynamite. Focus groups and polling in June had shown that "the furlough issue had the highest potential to hurt us, much more potential than anything we could find to run against Bush," Estrich said. Still, Dukakis insisted that responding would only give Bush an opening.

When a Texas aide tried to defend gun control in an Aug. 19 speech in Johnson City, the candidate crossed it out. And Dukakis refused all summer to give two vigorous speeches on national defense.

Sticking to Own Turf

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