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Emotional Dukakis Casts Self as ‘Underdog’ in Race : Governor’s Aides Huddle on Where to Focus Effort

Times Staff Writers

Michael S. Dukakis unveiled an emotional new stump speech Sunday while aides honed his campaign strategy in a last-ditch battle to overtake George Bush in the final three weeks of the presidential campaign.

And with the Democratic campaign struggling to win the voters’ attention--and to keep Bush from locking up swing voters--Dukakis acknowledged for the first time since winning the nomination in July that the odds are now against him.

“I enter the last three weeks of this campaign as an underdog, fighting for the values I believe in, the values that are at the core of this campaign,” he said to a chanting, cheering crowd at the Colonial-era Fanueil Hall.

“We’re in a fight for America’s future, and you’d better believe that I’m not going to walk away from that fight--and I’m not going to walk away from the commitments of a lifetime,” he said.

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The speech, which summed up Dukakis’ candidacy as few have, evoked the kind of response that aides had hoped for when Dukakis debated Bush last Thursday. Dukakis was at times fiery, at times introspective, and, for him, emotional throughout.

“I may not express my feelings as eloquently as some,” Dukakis said. “But does anyone doubt what I would have said . . . when they made those decisions to sell arms to the ayatollah, to put Noriega on the payroll, to veto civil rights and women’s rights or to choose people like Dan Quayle, Ed Meese and Robert Bork?

‘This Is Wrong’

“I would have said three simple words, ‘This is wrong.’ That’s the test of leadership; that’s the test of passion and principle, and that’s the issue in this election.”

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Dukakis’ fighting mood and optimism were echoed, at least in public, by his senior staff members. But in private his assistants conceded that the candidate has yet to hit a responsive chord among voters and that his only hope for winning the race depends on such a breakthrough.

Dukakis leaves today on a weeklong tour of the vote-rich Midwest and Northeast, an area crucial to his chances, while campaign officials focus on a strategy that would get their candidate the 270 electoral votes needed to win on Nov. 8.

In meetings this weekend, aides agreed to target the candidate’s time, money and field organization into states where they assert that the campaign remains in striking distance. The states offer about 400 electoral votes out of the total 538.

They include the coastal electoral-vote giants of New York and California and the closely contested states of Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Wisconsin, campaign officials said.

Other Areas of Concentration

He will also focus on Iowa, Washington, Oregon, Maryland, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Hawaii, North and South Dakota and the District of Columbia. Aides consider Texas and New Jersey crucial but increasingly difficult.

Aides insisted that they were putting increased effort into uphill battles in Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. Dukakis will visit the last two states later this week.

Charles Baker, Dukakis field director, said the Bush camp has falsely argued that the Democrats already have lost the South.

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“Don’t believe what they say, believe what they do,” Baker said. “If the South is locked up, why are they buying TV time in North Carolina and Georgia?”

As to reports that Bush may challenge Dukakis in New York, where the Democrat has led in most polls, Baker retorted with a grin: “Make my day.”

Area Write-Offs Denied

Campaign manager Susan Estrich also denied that the campaign was “writing off whole regions of the country.”

“We’re well within striking distance,” she said. “Our job now is to close the gap.”

For Dukakis and his aides, Sunday was a day to regroup and fashion the final push to Election Day, three weeks from Tuesday. A natural-gas leak forced staffers to evacuate campaign headquarters in downtown Boston for about an hour at midday, however.

Throughout the day, campaign aides fought against the perception that a Bush victory appears increasingly likely.

“We have to fight an effort on the part of the Republican spin doctors, aided by the press pundits, who are in a conspiracy to end this campaign three weeks before the vote takes place,” spokesman Leslie Dach said. “We think a lot of voters are still making up their minds, if the press doesn’t convince them there’s no point in it.”

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Speech to Be Centerpiece

Aides said Dukakis would use variations of the speech he delivered Sunday as the centerpiece of his final push. Mark Gearan, a campaign spokesman, said the speech was written for Dukakis as a “summation of his candidacy.”

The speech hammers Bush on economic issues, ethics and values, and homes in on his choice of Sen. Quayle of Indiana as his vice presidential nominee.

“If anyone asks you what’s at stake (in the election), tell them to remember the only new idea that Mr. Bush has offered in this campaign is a five-year, $40-billion tax cut for the wealthiest 1% of the people in this country,” Dukakis said.

“How can Mr. Bush set high standards for America when he won’t set high standards for the people around him? How can he ask young people to study hard--and give us Dan Quayle? How can he ask people to respect the law--and condone Ed Meese? How can he ask us to cherish the environment--and praise James Watt?”

Ex-Administration Officials

Meese, the former attorney general, left office after an independent prosecutor decided he did not have reason to prosecute him but found grounds to criticize his behavior in office. Watt is the Reagan Administration’s first Interior secretary, who came under sharp criticism from environmentalists.

Arguing that “accountability is the essence of democracy,” Dukakis said Bush “takes responsibility for nothing.”

He said Bush blamed Congress for the nation’s budget deficit, and the press for questions raised about Quayle.

“When they sold arms to the ayatollah, he went to 17 meetings where the matter was discussed and then said he wasn’t in the loop,” Dukakis said.

“How can Mr. Bush be a leader when he’s never in the loop? How can we trust his values when he sees nothing and says nothing and does nothing? How can we make him the man in the Oval Office when, for the past eight years, he’s been the man who wasn’t there?”

The clearly partisan crowd interrupted the speech at nearly every sentence with cheers and chants of “Let’s go, Mike!” And after 19 months of campaigning, Dukakis struck a defiant tone for his final drive.

“The Republicans want to put us to sleep,” Dukakis said. “They’re already celebrating, popping champagne corks in their penthouses. But I’ve got news for them: We’re the ones that are going to be celebrating on election night.”


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