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Dukakis Begins Cramming for Sunday Debate : Advice Pouring In From All Directions; Mock Confrontations Planned

Times Staff Writer

Michael S. Dukakis is about to get an earful.

With five days until the first debate between the Democratic presidential nominee and his Republican rival, Vice President George Bush, Dukakis wrapped up his week’s campaigning here Tuesday to return to Boston and begin intense debate preparations.

In winding up a two-day campaign trip to Southern and Border states, Dukakis renewed his call for a national health insurance program similar to one recently begun in Massachusetts. It would require employers, with some exceptions for small businesses, to provide minimum health insurance for workers.

Clearly, though, Dukakis and his staff were already preoccupied with Sunday’s debate. Advice is coming in from all over, aides said. Some is sought, some not. Some comes in letters, some by phone. Congressmen are being consulted, civil rights leaders solicited, briefing books and battle plans prepared.

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Drafting Possible Questions

“We are drafting a few dozen Q & A’s on possible questions to help him focus on how best to answer Bush and to convey the central themes of his campaign,” Christopher Edley Jr., chief issues adviser, said.

“I think a lot of the debate prep time will be spent tossing questions back and forth, obviously trying to anticipate what Bush’s strategy will be,” Edley added.

The campaign staff will review tapes of Bush’s best debates in the primaries, including performances in Houston, Iowa and New Hampshire. It will also review highlights of some of the 40 or so debates and forums in which Dukakis appeared during the primaries.

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Aides said that Washington lawyer Bob Barnett is ready to stand in for Bush in mock sessions. Barnett did similar stand-in duty four years ago when then-vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro debated Bush. He has kept a fat black book on Bush’s activities ever since.

Dukakis shrugged when a reporter asked Tuesday about the mock debates. “We’ll see,” he said. “I tend to be informal.”

100 Million May Tune In

But there is nothing informal about the stakes in the debates. The 1980 and 1984 presidential debates each drew television audiences of more than 100 million, and Sunday’s debate, scheduled for 5 p.m. PDT at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N. C., will probably do the same. A second debate will be held on Oct. 13 or 14 in Los Angeles.

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“We have to go there and prove he’s presidential,” Francis O’Brien, a senior adviser, said. “That’s always the most important thing for a challenger.”

Just appearing with the vice president helps, campaign spokesman Dayton Duncan argues. “He gains subtly because he’s the lesser-known candidate,” he said.

Because Dukakis is still unknown to many voters, Duncan said, the debate “gives him a chance to say, ‘Here’s who I am, here’s what I believe, here’s what my positions are.’ ”

Beyond that, the advice coming in has a recurring theme.

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“People want this guy to fight,” said Donna Brazile, deputy field director. “He has to duke George Bush. Punch him. Get him to talk fast.”

Must Not Hector Bush

But other aides are mindful that Dukakis must be careful not to appear arrogant and must avoid lecturing and hectoring the vice president. They are also concerned about his penchant for lawyerly language and statistics.

“I think he has to make the most of the opportunity to demonstrate the contrast between his view of our economic future and Bush’s,” said Theodore C. Sorensen, who will join the briefings on Friday and Saturday. “That’s the challenge.”

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Sorensen has a unique perspective. He advised John F. Kennedy in the most famous of his four debates with Richard M. Nixon in 1960. Whatever else was said that night, the youthful challenger scored a victory when Nixon appeared to sweat profusely and shifted his eyes under the camera’s gaze.

“We didn’t know we’d won,” Sorensen recalled. “But the crowds were enormous the next day in Ohio. That’s how we could tell we’d won.”

Sorensen said Kennedy studied only a stack of file cards to prepare for his debate and spent only one morning studying for the historic encounter. There were no stand-ins and no fat briefing books.

Rested Before Debate

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“He made sure he was rested,” Sorensen said. “He took the whole stack of cards to bed with him. When I went in to wake him up, the cards were all over and he was asleep.”

Both camps are working hard this time to lower the public’s expectations for their own candidate’s performance and raise its expectations for the opponent’s. After weeks of ridiculing Bush as a know-nothing, do-nothing vice president, the Dukakis campaign now describes him a hard-charging, brilliant debater.

“The notion Bush is a bozo in debates isn’t true,” Duncan said. “He’s the best the Republicans have fielded. He’s been vice president for 7 1/2 years. He ought to be in command. And he ought to be in command of the facts.”

In his main campaign event Tuesday, Dukakis reiterated his commitment to a national health insurance plan.

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Before hundreds of cheering students at Western Kentucky University, Dukakis spoke in moving terms of closed hospitals, overflowing emergency rooms and dying children.

“A baby born here in America has less chance of surviving than those in 18 other countries, including Spain and Singapore,” he said.

‘A Record of Neglect’

Dukakis attacked Bush for what he called “a record of indifference, a record of neglect, a record that even the American flag can’t hide.”

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After noting that Bush had visited a flag factory Tuesday, Dukakis asked: “Mr. Bush, don’t you think it’s about time you came out from behind that flag and told us what you intend to do to provide basic health care for 37 million of our fellow citizens?”

Dukakis has spoken often before of his commitment to providing national health insurance. In a briefing early Tuesday, aides acknowledged that the only new wrinkle was his promise to appoint a task force immediately after the election to report back by March 30 with “options” for action.


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