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Dukakis: A Tight Race; Bush: ‘L-People’ Failed : Governor Emphasizes ‘Challenge of Change’

Times Staff Writers

Michael S. Dukakis got an unwanted musical reminder early Saturday at a party in Los Angeles of the problems he may face in coming weeks.

“Nobody knows you when you’re down and out,” belted out blues singer Linda Hopkins as the Democratic presidential candidate listened at the Brentwood gathering.

But while Dukakis may be down in national polls after his final debate with Republican nominee George Bush, he and his aides insist he is anything but out as the battle for the presidency enters its final phase.

“This is a very tight race,” Dukakis told reporters aboard his campaign jet. “I can’t remember a race this tight at this point in time.”

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Although his aides were clearly dispirited by post-debate headlines--and Dukakis has been reading them all, one aide said--the candidate would not concede that he was politically hurt or personally disappointed by the generally poor reviews. Victory, he insisted, lies ahead.

“It’s not a question of turning anything around,” he told reporters Friday night. “You have a very large number of undecided people out there. And they’re not going to be making their decisions until, I think, very close to the end.”

Asked about his plans for the next three weeks, Dukakis said he planned no major changes. “Full speed ahead,” he said. “Good, hard campaigning. Raising the issues.”

Still, Dukakis acknowledged with frustration that he remains relatively unknown to many voters after 20 months of campaigning. “One of the things that I have to do, obviously, is give people a better sense of who Mike Dukakis is,” he said.

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Dukakis played down the debate’s importance, saying he had “won” the first face-off in Winston-Salem, N.C., “and I didn’t see any great impact on voter attitudes.” But he said he gained in Los Angeles by effectively arguing for change against the Republican status quo. “That was a plus,” he said.

To Emphasize Theme

Aides said Dukakis will emphasize that theme--that he and running mate Lloyd Bentsen offer what they call “the challenge of change” while Bush and his running mate, Dan Quayle, offer “the politics of complacency"--in the weeks ahead.

Bush “says things are fine, everything’s OK, don’t rock the boat,” Dukakis told about 1,000 people at an afternoon rally in San Antonio. “George Bush wants us to stick to the status quo.

“Think of where we’ll be four years from now if we try to get by on Mr. Bush’s diet of old chestnuts, new baloney and the same old voodoo stew,” he added, to cheers in the crowd.

The Democrats hope that focusing on the future, and painting Bush as part of the past, will help move voters away from the liberal vs. conservative argument that Bush has emphasized since July.

But aides acknowledge that Dukakis’ argument has risks.

“If the majority of voters are satisfied with the status quo, then we lose the election,” Steven Engelberg, a campaign adviser, said in an interview. “What we have to do is make the case for change.”

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Another risk is renewed Republican charges that Dukakis is offering “gloom and doom” politics. Kirk O’Donnell, another senior adviser, said Dukakis was making “fundamentally an economic argument” that focuses on voters’ anxieties about their family’s and their nation’s financial future.

Many Thought ‘Dissatisfied’

“There are as many people dissatisfied as there are satisfied,” he said. “Certainly most people don’t think things are prosperous, even if they are better off.”

Before leaving Los Angeles Saturday morning, Dukakis accepted the endorsement of four Latino law enforcement groups, the Latin American Law Enforcement Assn., the Mexican-American Correctional Assn., the Chicano Correctional Workers Assn. and the Latino Peace Officers Assn.

In his speech, he blasted Bush’s record on crime and his leadership of a task force against illicit drugs. Under Bush, he said, “the only thing cheaper today than in 1983, I think, is cocaine.”

Dukakis repeated his pledge to appoint more prosecutors and double the number of federal drug enforcement agents. He said he would send the first 100 to Southern California.

After leaving San Antonio late Saturday, he was to fly home to Boston. He will leave again Monday for a campaign swing through battleground states in the Midwest.

Sings ‘Happy Birthday’

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Dukakis aides attempted to put the best face on a week that began with efforts to portray Dukakis as a “warm,” voter-friendly candidate. Stopping in North Dakota on his way West last Tuesday, the usually wooden speaker sang a baritone “Happy Birthday” to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale’s 31-year-old son, Ted, who is a Dukakis political operative in the Midwest, and kissed two giggling cheerleaders.

Campaign advisers argued that Dukakis always has run his best campaigns as an underdog. And they said the falling polls will only spur field workers and supporters to redouble their efforts in the remaining weeks.

O’Donnell said Dukakis will intensify his campaign schedule, add more press interviews and speak for himself, rather than use actors, to get his message out in TV ads in the final weeks.

“There’s plenty of time,” O’Donnell insisted. In retrospect, he said, the campaign could have used Dukakis more in the past to make his own case. “I guess we followed the conventional wisdom too much . . . battling for the evening news,” he said.

And Dukakis himself appeared upbeat, even loose, despite the increasing pressure. At the Brentwood party, in honor of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 47th birthday, he roasted his former rival with a series of surprisingly self-deprecating jokes.

Jackson, he said, had given him valuable advice before a campaign event last month that was later ridiculed on network TV.

“I told him I was going to ride a tank in Michigan,” Dukakis said with a grin. “And he told me, ‘Those tanks are dangerous. Wear a helmet.’ ” The crowd roared.


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