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Seeks to Defuse Critics’ Major Charges : Dukakis Acts to Bolster Foreign Policy Credentials

Times Staff Writer

Democratic front-runner Michael S. Dukakis campaigned Thursday in Washington in a well-orchestrated attempt to defuse two of the major issues that his Republican opponents hope to use against him: that he lacks experience in foreign policy and that, as a governor and Washington outsider, he would have difficulty working with Congress.

On the first issue, Dukakis discussed South Africa for 35 minutes with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Later, he denounced the Administration for contemplating dropping drug indictments against Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega. He then met with Latin American ambassadors to the Organization of American States.

Meets Congress Leaders

On the second, the Massachusetts governor held meetings with Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, telling them: “There’s one lesson I’ve learned in the course of 10 years as governor: You can’t be a successful chief executive unless you work very closely, very constructively, very effectively with your legislative colleagues.”

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In return, he received endorsements from Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and was repeatedly praised by others. “It is time now to unite,” Byrd said.

Dukakis had a private meeting with Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee and one of the leading black members of Congress. Dukakis’ press secretary, Mark Gearan, said the topic of the meeting was the budget and economic policy, but Gray has been a major adviser to Dukakis’ remaining Democratic rival, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. After the meeting, Gray slipped out a back door, avoiding reporters.

The warm comments between Dukakis and the legislative leaders were in marked contrast with the often chilly relations between Congress and the last Democratic governor to win his party’s nomination, former President Jimmy Carter.

Dukakis’ aides repeatedly denied that they deliberately were trying to draw a contrast with Carter as a counter to Republican attempts to equate the two men in the public mind. Had they set out to do so, however, they could hardly have done more.

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At a closed meeting with the House Democratic leadership, Dukakis “asked for our ideas and said he wasn’t running against Congress,” Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) said. “He is extremely well focused on the need to work with Congress,” House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) added.

The praise was similarly warm when Dukakis met with South Africa’s Tutu. “We’ve had a very, very good discussion,” Tutu said. “We didn’t have any point at which we disagreed. I’m just thrilled, and I know that our people back home would be very, very delighted.”

The statements should help both Dukakis’ foreign policy credentials and his standing with blacks, whose votes so far have gone overwhelmingly to Jackson but whose support will be vital to Dukakis’ chances in the general election. Jackson has criticized Dukakis repeatedly in the last month for not taking a strong enough position against South Africa.

Dukakis Seen as Friend

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Although not directly renouncing Jackson--"I don’t think I need to give an endorsement to anybody"--Tutu praised Dukakis, saying that “we know we would be among friends” with a Dukakis Administration in the White House.

Dukakis, in turn, endorsed legislation pending in the House that would order an end to virtually all economic relations between the United States and South Africa.

The bill, which Tutu supports, faces strong opposition from the Administration. It has been approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is likely to be passed by the full House, but prospects are dimmer in the Senate, where the bill was introduced Thursday by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The other foreign policy topic for the day, Panama, is one on which Dukakis repeatedly has attacked the Administration, and particularly Vice President George Bush, the expected Republican nominee.

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Thursday’s criticism, however, was more forceful than it has been in the past, reflecting the view of Dukakis’ advisers that Noriega will be a major vulnerability for Bush, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1970s, while Noriega was on the agency’s payroll.

Wants Bush Explanation

“Once again, the Administration has botched things in Central America,” Dukakis said, demanding that Bush provide “a full explanation as to what this Administration’s relationship has been with Noriega, who’s been doing business with whom, was he paid off, if so by whom?”

The Administration, he said, had “gotten into the soup” by failing to consult with U.S. allies in Central America before proceeding against Noriega and was now dropping the indictments in “a desperate attempt to salvage something from another fiasco.”

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