With polls showing that a lack of perceived warmth remains a problem for Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee has begun taking steps to soften his image.
The actions range from additions to his standard speech to changes in the way he dresses. And some of the more effective new lines are likely to reappear when Dukakis and Vice President George Bush debate again in Los Angeles next week. The debate will be held either Oct. 13 or Oct. 14, depending on when the American League baseball playoffs end.
Dukakis aides have been of two minds about whether their candidate’s aloof personality is a serious problem. Some argue that Dukakis’ main emphasis must be his agenda of “middle-class issues” such as jobs, education, housing and health care. Voters in the end will decide that having a President they like is less important than having one who is talking about issues of concern to them, these advisers say.
Other advisers concede what many outside strategists say--that the presidency is a uniquely personal office for many voters who need to feel comfortable with the man they elect.
“It’s a relevant question,” Dukakis communications director Leslie Dach said after the first presidential debate last week. “There are six more weeks to talk about it.”
Some of the ways the campaign has chosen to do that are subtle. Some image consultants have argued that Dukakis’ usual mode of dress--a dark suit--just reinforces his accountant-like image. Saturday, when Dukakis spoke to a “Vote the Coast” rally in San Francisco, he showed up wearing tan slacks, running shoes and a red cardigan sweater.
Other changes have come in his standard stump speech. Dukakis now has a section he introduces by talking about a conversation he recently had with his cousin, Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis. The two, he said, talked about their parents--their mothers, who are still living, and their fathers, two brothers who emigrated from Greece and died a few years ago.
The candidate and the actress talked about the American dream, Dukakis says, about being part of that dream and about extending it to others.
The immigrant experience is, of course, a subject that Dukakis has talked about often before. But the new language seems more effective than in the past.
Several days ago, for example, he gave the speech in Greensburg, Pa. When he got to a line in which he described himself as a “product of the American dream,” a woman in the crowd shouted out: “So are we.” Others applauded.
That sort of response could help Dukakis with what remains a liability for him in polls and voter “focus groups"--the sense that he is “passionless, technocratic, the smartest clerk in the world"--words ABC anchorman Peter Jennings used in asking Dukakis about his leadership style during the first presidential debate a week ago.
There is, of course, a limit to how much a candidate can change his personality.
Saturday night, on the way back to Boston from a campaign swing through California, Dukakis stopped briefly in Green Bay, Wis. There, local supporters who had waited more than an hour in a cold, windy drizzle to hear him speak presented him with a Green Bay Packers jersey.
Later, on the plane, Dukakis showed off the jersey to reporters but then grumbled about it being the wrong size. “We called the Packers; the smallest they had was a 50,” he said.
And some of his attempts to seem more of a “good ol’ boy” appear strained, at least to those who see him regularly.
Speaking recently at a farm near Idalou, Tex., in the West Texas plains, Dukakis repeated a standard line he often uses to disparage Bush’s conservative credentials. His father, Panos, always taught him that a “conservative paid his bills,” Dukakis says, but Bush has stood by while the Reagan Administration ran up a trillion-dollar debt.
In West Texas, however, Dukakis made one change. All of a sudden, Panos went from being “my father” to “my daddy.”