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Pursuit of Midwest’s Critical Big 3 States Leaves Little Margin for Error

Times Staff Writers

Propped at the edge of Steve Murphy’s desk is a paste-up of an old local newspaper story headlined “A Beginner’s Guide to Illinois Politics.” The article is satire, but its presence in the 15th-floor Loop office is as much irony as joke.

Murphy is the Illinois state director for Michael S. Dukakis, a veteran Democratic strategist dispatched from Washington to trouble-shoot the party’s presidential drive in a key industrial swing state that is often a bellwether of national voting trends.

That would be a tall order even for someone immersed in the nuances of Illinois’ hothouse political environment. But, among myriad problems, outsider Murphy must bridge deep racial divisions and internal rivalries among Democrats, energize enthusiasm in the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s home base among blacks who feel slighted and contend with an uncharacteristically unified band of Republican leaders pushing for Vice President George Bush.

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“If Dukakis is the quarterback, it doesn’t matter whether the left tackle or the right guard dislike each other as long as they all block,” Murphy contends.

Recent polls show the race in a virtual dead heat here, all the more reason why intramural squabbling or lackadaisical field work could prove critical to the fortunes of either ticket. The same is true in Michigan and Ohio, the two other large Midwestern states, where the contests are also tight and the margins for error nonexistent.

Although internal bickering is mostly a problem for the Democrats in Illinois, it has proved a bipartisan headache in Michigan, where leaders of both camps are still struggling to heal wounds left over from bitter battles between Republican and Democratic contenders in pre-convention party caucuses.

With 67 electoral votes among them--about a quarter of the total needed to capture the White House--Illinois, Michigan and Ohio represent not only a tantalizing prize but one that history has shown is virtually essential for victory. Only twice this century has Illinois voted for a losing presidential candidate. The record in the Buckeye state is even better, with Ohioans going with the winner in 23 of the last 25 elections.

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Mindful of that record, both Bush and Dukakis have been shuttling into each of the states at least once a week, a clip that amounts to saturation coverage by campaign standards. Dukakis last week shifted 10 of his 30 paid campaign staffers in Florida, where he is far behind, to these three states. Of the weekly campaign trips that President Reagan has made on Bush’s behalf, the last two have been to suburban Detroit and Chicago.

In Illinois, the presidential contest is being played against the backdrop of a shifting political landscape and an intense struggle for power in the once-unified Democratic stronghold of Chicago. Although the state has not gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, Illinois is by no means a Republican state.

GOP Governor

The GOP controls the governor’s mansion and the patronage-rich secretary of state’s office, but Democrats hold the other major constitutional offices and have solid majorities in both branches of the Legislature. In addition, the bulk of the state’s congressional delegation, including both U.S. senators, are Democrats.

“I reject the notion that Illinois is a Republican state and that the Democrats should not be, if not optimistic, at least hopeful,” said Ed Murnane, the Illinois coordinator for Bush’s campaign.

Still, Republicans are upbeat about their prospects since both the conservative and moderate wings of the party have rallied around Bush.

The once-mighty Democratic Party in Illinois, meanwhile, is a far cry from what it was only when the late Richard J. Daley was still the mayor of Chicago and the undisputed Democratic boss of his city.

Since Daley’s death in 1976, party unity has disintegrated in a continuing struggle for power that assumed increasing racial overtones as blacks eventually took control of City Hall under the late Mayor Harold Washington. With the rise of black empowerment, a handful of prominent white Democrats have defected to the Republican Party, including Edward R. Vrdolyak, a former Chicago City Council leader and one-time chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

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Vrdolyak, who led opposition to Washington in the City Council, remains a hero to many white ethnic voters. In previous presidential years, Republicans would do well to scrape a few hundred votes out of Vrdolyak’s 10th Ward on the city’s far South Side. But in the Illinois primary last March--following Vrdolyak’s conversion to the GOP--more than 9,000 voters in his ward cast their ballots for Bush.

Voter Registration

Vrdolyak’s most significant impact could be in the area of voter registration. To win his spurs in the GOP, he has spearheaded a major sign-up drive in largely Republican suburbs of Cook County. Election officials say suburban registration is up more than 54,000 from 1984 levels while registration in Chicago proper is down by about 40,000.

The city side of that registration equation is where Jackson comes in. He led a major voter registration drive among blacks in 1983 that helped bring Washington to power, and Democratic leaders have been counting on him to do the same for Dukakis on a national basis this year. While Jackson has been actively recruiting new registrants in the Southern states, he has been virtually invisible of late in the city he calls home.

That could be by design, though. Jackson’s power base here presents Dukakis with a prickly political dilemma. The black vote has long been a major component of Democratic support here, but to cater to it means to cater to Jackson. And that could risk losing support among white ethnics who see Jackson as a major player in the local party shake-ups that have stripped them of political clout.

Jackson’s challenge to Dukakis for the Democratic nomination drew surprisingly strong white support this year, but not in Illinois, where there are signs that greater familiarity with the civil rights activist has bred contempt among many whites. In a recent Gallup poll taken for the Chicago Sun-Times, 62% of Illinois whites questioned about Jackson viewed him unfavorably as opposed to only 50% of whites surveyed nationally.

Dukakis has sought to finesse the tensions by naming Jackson aide Leon Finney to the No. 2 spot in the Illinois campaign while confining his campaign stops here largely to white sections of the city and suburbs. Some observers thought it symptomatic of Dukakis’ problems that, on his first campaign foray into a black neighborhood in Chicago recently, he was late because his campaign motorcade got lost three times on the way from the airport.

With no other significant races on the November ballot, Bob Starks, a Northeastern Illinois University political scientist, warned that many blacks might just stay away from the polls on Election Day rather than vote for Dukakis.

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‘Slur on Citizenship’

Murphy, the state campaign director, rejects suggestions that the party is racially fractured or that blacks would sit out the vote. “To me that is a slur on black citizenship,” he said. “We don’t take blacks for granted and we will very actively campaign in the black community and . . . we will receive a large black turnout and plurality for Michael Dukakis.”

But Finney, Murphy’s deputy in the campaign, conceded that “race is always a factor in Chicago politics” and could make it harder to sell Dukakis in the black community, where he is not well known. “It takes a longer time to put a campaign together in a state that is as racially divided and class divided as this one,” he said.

Similar question-marks swirl around black commitment to the ticket in Michigan, where the Democratic campaign has been marred by a widely publicized squabble between Jackson supporters and the Dukakis campaign staff. Jackson scored his biggest coup in Michigan last March when he beat Dukakis in party caucuses there.

Last month, Joel Ferguson, the manager of Jackson’s successful Michigan campaign, complained in an interview with the Detroit News that Jackson supporters were being shut out of the campaign in Michigan by Dukakis director John Eade, a Boston architect. Dukakis would be routed if things did not change, Ferguson warned.

“We had people eager to do something and they weren’t properly using them,” Ferguson said in a recent interview with The Times. “And, since we had buried them (in the caucuses) we thought they should use us.”

Aggravating the problems was animosity between Jackson and Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, one of the few prominent black leaders in the country to support Dukakis, not Jackson, in the early primary season. The feud had blocked effective cooperation between Jackson forces and Young’s powerful Detroit machine.

But Ferguson’s published remarks apparently sparked a dramatic turnaround in the Dukakis campaign’s attitudes toward Jackson supporters and relations have warmed noticeably since. For example, Jackson campaigned for Dukakis among blacks in Ann Arbor last week and then joined hands with Young at a breakfast meeting for the Dukakis effort in Detroit to symbolize a revitalized spirit of unity.

‘Coming Together’

“They’ve (the Dukakis camp) hired our people, they’re using us in our strong areas now,” Ferguson said. “We think things are coming together.”

Young echoed that sentiment. “I think the black turnout will be large because this election could be the end of the second Reconstruction unless we do something about it,” the mayor said.

All is not sanguine in the Republican camp, either. A messy battle between the Establishment wing of the party, which supported Bush, and a growing faction of evangelical Christian supporters, who backed religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, so devastated the party during caucuses last winter that it was unable to field a credible slate of candidates to challenge Democrats for statewide offices in November.

Long before he had the nomination wrapped up, political analysts warned that evangelicals might boycott the GOP ticket in Michigan if Bush became the nominee. But in the intervening months Bush strategists made several gestures to smooth over bruised egos and hurt feelings.

State Senate Majority Leader John Engler, the head of the Bush campaign in the state, agreed to integrate Robertson campaign leaders into the Bush organization in Michigan. The Robertson backers also received several slots in the state delegation to the Republican National Convention. “I’d say that the rift is pretty much behind us,” said Lori Packer, Robertson’s one-time campaign director who is now a co-chairman of the Michigan Bush campaign.

In Ohio, the Dukakis campaign has also experienced some internal friction, but with a twist--Jackson forces were quickly integrated into the process and party regulars were complaining about being shut out. In large part, the path was smoothed for Jackson people because Gerald F. Austin, his one-time national campaign manager, is a Columbus political consultant and has close ties to the regular Democratic leadership in the state.

Lack of Input

Frustrated by what he believed was a lack of input over the campaign’s scheduling and message policies in Ohio, Democratic State Chairman Jim Ruvolo went public with his complaints about the national Dukakis campaign about two weeks ago. “I took a shot at them,” Ruvolo explained. “My complaints weren’t with the state campaign, they’ve been good, but with the national campaign organization. We (the state party organization) were not included in the message and scheduling work being done for Ohio.”

Just as Ferguson’s public charges in Michigan seemed to spark a response from the Dukakis campaign organization, so too did Ruvolo’s statements. A top Dukakis staffer was assigned to coordinate activities between the national campaign and the state party apparatus. Ruvolo said strategists have also been prevailed on to alter the Dukakis message on visits to Ohio to stress an appeal to blue-collar workers uncertain over the future of their jobs.

“People are worried about the future,” Ruvolo said. “If they live in Toledo, they’ve seen what’s happened to the auto industry; in Akron, they’ve seen what’s happened to the rubber industry, and in Youngstown, to the steel industry. He’s talking about those issues now . . . he wasn’t before.”

Polls show Bush holding a statistically insignificant lead over Dukakis, but both sides admit support is soft and say that could make Ohio one of the nation’s top election battlegrounds in the coming weeks.

Southern and southwestern Ohio are traditionally strong GOP territory while the Rust Belt northeastern corridor around Cleveland, Akron and Toledo goes strongly Democratic. Those trends are holding this year, said James Nathanson, executive director of the Ohio Bush campaign.

“We’re confident we can do it here, but there is still considerable volatility,” he added.

Bob Secter reported from Chicago and James Risen from Detroit.

BATTLEGROUND: THE MIDWEST

Polls show the presidential election extremely close in the three most populous Midwestern states. In years past, these states were strongholds for organized labor and the Democrats, but no more. Except in Ohio in 1976, they have gone Republican in every presidental election since 1968. MICHIGAN Electoral votes: 20 Population: 9.16 million (1988 est.) 84.1 % white, 13.5% black, 2.4% other. Registered voters: 5.79 million (no party registration) ILLINOIS Electoral votes: 24 Population: 11.58 million (1988 est.). 79.5% white, 15.3% black, 5.2% other. Registered voters: 6.0 million (no party registration) OHIO Electoral votes: 23 Population: 10.76 million (1988 est.). 88.1% white, 10.6% black, 1.3% other. Registered voters: 5.9 million--32% Democratic, 19% Republican, 49% unaffiliated.


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