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Campaign Stops Geared to Get Out Message Without Upstaging Dukakis : Bentsen Aims for Big Splash in Small Markets

Times Staff Writer

Mike McCurry, press spokesman for Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, came bouncing out of Virginia Tech’s Alumni Hall one day last week and pronounced it a “record.”

In just the 40 minutes since Bentsen had finished speaking to a student rally, the senator had conducted on-camera interviews with four local TV reporters, two others with local radio reporters, a round table discussion with six newspaper reporters and an “exclusive interview” with a Roanoke Times reporter.

That evening, on TV and radio broadcasts throughout southwestern Virginia and in the mountain area extending into West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, and next morning on the front pages of their newspapers, Bentsen was seen touting the Democrats as the party of education, jobs and hope for America’s underdeveloped regions.

Little Media Attention

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Bentsen’s quick visit to Blacksburg explains why the Democrats’ No. 2 man has captured little attention on the TV network news and in the headlines of the nation’s major newspapers. But it also explains why he may be running an effective campaign, albeit one with carefully limited goals.

Vice presidential candidates cannot upstage the top man by offering their own proposals and pledges. To make news across the country while running for vice president, “you have to get in trouble,” said Bentsen, as demonstrated by Republican Spiro T. Agnew in 1968, Democrat Geraldine A. Ferraro in 1984 and now Sen. Dan Quayle.

“I’m not seeking that kind of attention,” Bentsen said when asked about Quayle’s prominence in the news.

If Bentsen has a national message, it does not stem so much from what he says, but who he is, says Times political analyst William Schneider. “Bentsen’s presence on the ticket says this isn’t a party of wild-eyed liberals. He delivers a message that conservative Democrats have a home in the Democratic Party,” Schneider said.

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Moreover, the Democrats believe that Bentsen’s 18 years’ experience in the Senate and his steadiness on the campaign trail give them a big edge over his Republican counterpart, whom the senior senator from Texas always refers to as “the junior senator from Indiana.”

Articulate on Trade

As the courtly chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Bentsen is articulate in discussing international trade, the federal budget or the need for a national energy policy.

But so far, his campaign has been targeted at making a big splash in small markets. In stops throughout Texas, across the South and Friday and Saturday in Southern California, he has focused on a message intended for local consumption. Each stop has a scene made for television. At the Johnson Space Center near Houston, the 67-year-old senator climbed up a ladder into the cockpit of a space shuttle and sat making small talk with shuttle pilot Robert (Hoot) Gibson. One at a time, cameramen lugged their equipment up a ladder to record the scene.

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Afterward, Bentsen delivered a luncheon speech to the Houston Chamber of Commerce, pledging to restore the U.S. space program to the status it enjoyed in the glory days of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration of the 1960s. Even though the Republicans were in the midst of their convention in New Orleans, Bentsen’s promise that he and Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis would push for the creation of a permanently manned space station was featured in the city’s nightly newscasts and on the front pages of its newspapers.

Administration ‘Indifference’

Last Friday in Iowa, he blamed the farm crisis on “mismanagement and indifference” by the Reagan Administration and got a rousing reception. Flying on to Southern California, he spoke at a union hall near Fontana and offered the Republicans a 60-day notice that their jobs were about to be terminated, a reference to the Democratic-sponsored legislation that requires such notice for workers when a plant is about to close. On Saturday, in Carson and in San Diego, the message was about gangs and drugs.

“Our job is to go after the ‘Reagan Democrats,’ ” said Joe O’Neill, Bentsen’s staff director, “and to reinforce the overall message of the (Dukakis) campaign in the local media.”

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The Democrats’ appeal to “Reagan Democrats” was clearly thrown off in the last month when Republican nominee George Bush used, among other things, the Pledge of Allegiance to portray Dukakis as soft on crime, soft on defense and less than patriotic. Privately, Bentsen was said to have favored a sharp, quick counterattack, but the Boston-based Dukakis campaign chose to largely ignore the Bush charges.

“I’m not a hatchet man. That’s not my nature,” Bentsen said in an interview Saturday. “But I think you have to confront that kind of outrageous attack head-on.”

A decorated bomber pilot in World War II, Bentsen strongly defended Dukakis in a speech last month to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Chicago, but was booed each time he mentioned Dukakis’ name. This was the one Bentsen appearance that made news on all the TV networks.

In recent days, Bentsen has stepped up his attacks on Bush and the Republican’s campaign style. On Thursday night, he roused a huge Democratic fund-raising dinner in New York City with a warm-up speech for Dukakis.

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‘No’ to Deficits

“We must say ‘no’ to the hate-mongering disciples of the hard right, ‘no’ to massive budget and trade deficits, and ‘no’ to candidates who would impugn the patriotism and loyalty of others while hiding behind the American flag,” Bentsen said.

Dukakis then followed with his standard stump speech that sent some in the audience heading for the doors. But the next day, Dukakis fired back for the first time, telling a rally in Texas that Republican attacks on him were similar to the slanderous accusations used by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in the early 1950s.

Like Dukakis, Bentsen is still struggling to find a message that will send undecided middle-class voters into the Democratic column. Dukakis and Bentsen say they think that despite the current low unemployment and low inflation in the nation, most middle-class voters feel “squeezed” and have a “sense of anxiety” about the future.

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“When you talk about the high mortgage payments, the difficulty of buying a first home, about trying to pay for a child’s college education, you can see the heads nodding,” Bentsen said in describing his rallies in Southern California.

Dukakis Education Plan

Last week, Dukakis proposed a new program to help college students by allowing them to pay off their loans over a lifetime. Democratic campaign aides say that in the weeks ahead, the Massachusetts governor will also put forth specific proposals to help the middle class in areas such as housing.

But such proposals are not Bentsen’s job. After attending sessions in the Senate Monday, he will head out today for more campaigning in Texas.

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In the end, Bentsen’s success or failure as a vice presidential candidate will depend more than anything on whether Dukakis carries Texas. So far, the state polls tell two stories. Bentsen gets the highest ratings of all four national candidates among Texas voters, nearly half of whom say they are more likely to vote for Dukakis simply because Bentsen is on the ticket. But the same polls also show Bush and Quayle holding a slight 47%-44% edge over Dukakis and Bentsen.


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