How important is Thursday’s debate for Michael S. Dukakis in California?
Well, some of his operatives here have kicked around the idea of moving Lloyd Bentsen’s name to the top of the campaign signs. They were only half joking.
“Lloyd Bentsen has become a hero in this campaign because of his debate performance,” said one top Democrat, who requested anonymity.
Now, he added, Dukakis has to do the same if the ticket is to win California’s 47 electoral votes.
On the eve of the debate, Dukakis and Republican nominee George Bush are locked in a tight battle for California that closely resembles recent races for governor here. And that would appear to favor Bush.
The issues have been crime, the death penalty, gun control and taxes--all proven winners for two-term Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.
Dukakis has even been on the defensive about the environment because of problems with Boston Harbor. And that is reminiscent of the way Deukmejian used the pollution of Santa Monica Bay against Democrat Tom Bradley in their 1986 rematch.
“In California, Dukakis has to shift the focus to the future and to where we want to be in the year 2000,” said Democratic adviser Mickey Kantor. “But first, in the debate, he has to hit Bush head-on about the crime issue and get it behind him.”
Other Democrats said Dukakis also has to:
--Energize blacks and Latinos who are indifferent about the race so far. One way, say the Democrats, is to talk more about Supreme Court appointments and such issues as low-cost housing.
--Appeal to older conservative Democrats who are concerned about the safety of the Social Security and Medicare systems. And particularly with this group, Democrats say, Dukakis has to undercut the charge that he is soft on crime by personalizing it, as he did in a speech last weekend when he pointed out that his father was once mugged and his brother killed by a hit-and-run driver.
--Gain the high ground on the environment, a crucial issue in California elections and one that is particularly important in Northern California, Dukakis’ base. The Dukakis campaign is now airing environmental ads designed specifically for the state.
As for Bush’s California strategy, there is not much second-guessing in either party.
Five months ago, Deukmejian advised Bush to run as if he were a candidate for governor, and that is exactly what he has done with the crime and tax issues.
He has also dominated the image game in a state that believes it invented it.
“I just can’t believe how well Bush is being packaged and presented to the public,” said Democratic activist Evie Talmus of San Francisco. “And did you notice that after Dan Quayle raised some fears in his debate, Bush was suddenly shown jogging? The image was, ‘Don’t worry, folks, I’m gonna live a long time.’ It was brilliant.”
Recovered From Recession
The state continues to boom after recovering from a mild recession in 1982, and Bush has benefitted from that just as Deukmejian did in his reelection in 1986.
It was taxes that pulled Jean Slocum of Menlo Park back to Bush after she leaned toward Dukakis because of his stands on social issues.
“I think everyone believes Dukakis will raise taxes and that his programs will be expensive,” said Slocum, an investment consultant. “I had thought he would do better here on the (San Francisco) Peninsula, but from what I’m hearing, Bush has just come across better.”
Bush does not have to win Northern California--his aides hope to get 44% of the vote in the region. Dukakis, on the other hand, has to harvest an enormous number of votes there to offset Bush’s natural strength in more conservative Southern California.
“But the trouble up here is, there isn’t much interest in either guy and that has to be bad news for Dukakis,” said Bay Area consultant Jack McDowell. “He needs excitement here.”
Keep Race Close
In the San Joaquin Valley, the Dukakis plan is not to win but simply to keep it close.
Fresno consultant John Hix still expects Dukakis to do better than Walter F. Mondale did in 1984, but he adds: “I think Bush has gotten him tagged on the wrong side of the crime issue up here and it’s going to hurt.”
Polling by state Democrats in the San Joaquin Valley found that Bush’s attacks on Dukakis on the Pledge of Allegiance issue and gun control were so effective that by mid-September, the vice president was clearly defined as a conservative in those voters’ minds.
That frees Bush to move toward the middle in California and start talking about quality of life issues--which is what he will do next, according to consultants in both parties.
They look for it to start in Thursday’s debate.
Slow Start for Campaign
Meanwhile, Democrats still think Dukakis could push off from a good debate performance and win the state despite his campaign’s slow start.
“The good news for Dukakis is that after all of his problems here and Bush’s effectiveness, the race still appears to be close,” said Bill Bradley, who was state political director for Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1984.
A poll conducted by Teichner Associates of Fullerton for the San Francisco Examiner and a San Francisco television station found that Dukakis still leads Bush in the state 44% to 40%, with 12% undecided, a lead virtually unchanged from three weeks ago. The lack of movement either way in the poll seemed to indicate that the campaigns were not registering yet on Californians.
“I think it means Bush is still a weak candidate, both in his persona and in his judgment in picking Dan Quayle,” Bradley said. “That’s why Thursday’s debate is so crucial. Californians are going to take a hard look.”
San Francisco Democratic consultant Paul Ambrosino said: “Californians choose their presidents the way they do their TV shows--they pick the ones they like to watch. The debate is a chance for Dukakis to begin connecting with Californians on a gut level.
“The problem for him so far can be understood if you think of the two campaigns as movies.
“Bush’s movie is about Dirty Harry, the San Francisco cop. Dukakis’ movie is ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being,’ (a recent film based on Milan Kundera’s novel about the 1968 Czech uprising).
“Dirty Harry keeps it simple,” Ambrosino said. “He says, ‘make my day’ and ‘read my lips.’ The ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is long, intellectual and makes you do some work. But it does make you think about serious issues.”