Dukakis Tries to Counter Charges of Liberalism

Times Political Writer

The candidate for President talked about spending most of the Fourth of July weekend, "that most American of holidays," with his family in the back yard. He told of his joy at learning he will be a grandfather.

He said that China and the Soviet Union have seen the error of their ways and are becoming more democratic. And he talked about making sure "our fighting men and women" have the best equipment to do their jobs.

This was not Republican George Bush talking. It was Democrat Michael S. Dukakis.

Countering GOP Charges

In speech after speech during two recent trips to the Midwest and West, Dukakis worked to inoculate himself against the GOP charge that he is just another liberal offered up by the Democrats.

How successful he will be in deflecting that label is uncertain. He is opposed to the death penalty, he is pro-choice on abortion and very much the Northeastern ethnic political leader--all ingredients of what one political scientist identifies as "cultural liberalism."

"Dukakis is very solid on the economy," said University of North Carolina political science professor Merle Black. "But, in my opinion, he has a major problem in the South--he is viewed as a cultural liberal. It's a subtle thing but it lends itself to cartooning that can have lasting damage."

The potential payoff from painting Dukakis as a liberal has not been lost on Bush. He has pointed out that murderers were released on a Massachusetts furlough program, that Dukakis vetoed a bill requiring schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance and that Dukakis belongs to the American Civil Liberties Union, which he implied was more concerned about criminals than about their victims.

Dukakis' response has been primarily to stress patriotism, family values and optimism.

When asked about his roots in liberal Brookline, Mass., and his need to connect with voters in Middle America, Dukakis said: "Look, I'm an urban guy. (But) I'm somebody who believes very deeply in traditional American values. When I talk about the family, it's something I believe in deeply."

It is not an exaggerated claim. For years, Dukakis insisted on spending certain nights with his wife, Kitty, and three children no matter how pressing the agenda in the Massachusetts Statehouse. He grows his own tomatoes; he argues with his wife over the family budget. He volunteered for the Army during the Korean War.

In Tacoma, Wash., he told a cheering crowd: "So, we were sitting there in our back yard having a barbecue and enjoying what American families do on a Fourth of July weekend, that most American of holidays, and it reminded me of how important the family is in our country. It's the most important thing in my life and, I suspect, in yours."

Promise of Change

Then came the promise of change:

"But the most important policy for our families is full employment, basic health insurance, child care and a real war on drugs"--all priority items on the Dukakis agenda.

Dukakis' aides acknowledge that they learned a major lesson from Walter F. Mondale's ill-fated presidential campaign in 1984. When Mondale spoke of the need for change, he often sounded pessimistic.

But Dukakis is attempting to borrow a page from the Ronald Reagan playbook. He chooses upbeat campaign sites and said recently: "I want to highlight success stories in this country, I want to make this campaign something that talks about what's good and what's strong, what's successful about us--and there is a lot to be proud of in this country--and the kinds of things I can do to build on that. You know, I'm a very optimistic person and I'm very optimistic about this country."

When asked recently about the liberal tag that Bush is trying to stick on him, Dukakis said: "I don't know the meaning of that word anymore. I have balanced budgets, cut taxes, cut crime in my state. I am an ardent conservationist. The root of the word conservative is conserve . . . . Conserving our environment is a very conservative environment, and I'm for it."

In the Rocky Mountain National Park the other day, where he had gone to emphasize his environmental credentials, Dukakis traded his wing-tips for a pair of moccasins, shed his tie and jacket and made his plea to be accepted in Middle America: "I am here in the West. I'm a son of the Northeast. But all of us as Americans share some very important values, some very important goals, some very important dreams for our country."

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