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MEDIA POLITICS : In So Many Words, Sages on TV Say Race Is a Bomb

Times Political Writer

There are five weeks left before the presidential election, and, if the candidates were watching television Sunday, they must have wondered whether there wasn’t a better way to go about this.

Day after day, Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael S. Dukakis put themselves through a grueling pace that takes them from coast to coast and border to border as they try to get the best possible words and pictures on the four network newscasts.

But on Sunday the verdict of reporters and commentators for three of those networks was brutal: This race, they said in so many words, is a bomb.

“The question to ask at this stage of the campaign is whether there is any way, any way for Bush and Dukakis to generate excitement in the election,” said Garrick Utley, who anchored NBC’s news Sunday night.

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Then NBC’s Tom Pettit, reporting from a small town in western Pennsylvania, said: “Brackenridge is a hotbed of apathy about the election . . . . Is anyone in Brackenridge even listening to the presidential campaign?”

He added: “Michael Dukakis visited this heavily Democratic community in August but saw few voters and made no lasting impression.”

On CBS, Democratic commentator Christopher Matthews said that voters were so “unexcited by either candidate” that it is now up to the vice presidential candidates to create some excitement in their debate on Wednesday.

‘Looking for Reason to Vote’

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“People are looking for a reason to vote,” Matthews said, “so this is when vice presidential candidates can become important.”

But if history is a guide, the only excitement vice presidential candidates generate is the kind you don’t want--Richard M. Nixon’s financial problems in 1952 and Geraldine A. Ferraro’s similar problems in 1984.

So, if the networks are right about the race being dull, which candidate does that help?

Unfortunately for Dukakis, already trailing in most polls, the answer is apparently more bad news.

“Dukakis talks about issues that matter to a lot of people,” said ABC’s Sam Donaldson on “This Week With David Brinkley.” “He talks about ethics, welfare reform, student loans and health insurance for people. But they don’t seem to be catching on. We broadcast them, the newspapers cover them, but there is no great clamor that I discern out there.”

Will Knows Why

Conservative commentator George Will said he knows why:

“The middle class has heard it and it’s saying: ‘We’re not in the mood right now.’ ”

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But it was liberal commentator Tom Wicker who had the most devastating comment of all for Dukakis on the Brinkley show.

Although he thinks either man could still win the race, Wicker added: “I must say I don’t see anything in the performance of Gov. Dukakis up to this point that suggests to me that either he, personally, or his staff, has the capacity to transform this campaign.”

He said Dukakis missed a major opportunity to capitalize on Bush’s statement in their debate last week that he had not yet “sorted out” whether a woman should face criminal penalties if abortion were outlawed and she got one anyway.

Despite the vice president’s clarification the next day that he had decided the doctors who performed the abortions, not the women, would be liable under a new law, Wicker believed Dukakis “should have hit on it and never let up.”

“Dukakis does not seem to be . . . a strong, alert, tough campaigner,” Wicker said.

Issues Ominous Warning

Donaldson said: “The news is pretty ominous. It’s not irreparable . . . but after the debate, in which Dukakis arguably did pretty well, he got no bounce. The polls suggest that it just stayed stuck, with the edge going to Bush in the national polls.

“It’s hard to see how Dukakis--simply by going city to city and pressing his programs at rallies--it’s hard to see how he can catch up.”

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Today, both candidates will be back at it. And despite Sunday’s bad reviews, the entire day of each man will come down to seeking the best camera angles and sound bites.


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