Michael S. Dukakis had just sat down Monday afternoon to order peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream at Shorty’s Delux Diner here when customer Tim Lachina offered some sage political advice.
The 36-year-old graphic designer, who sat with his 5-year-old daughter, Daniella, across the Formica table from the Democratic presidential nominee, implored him in graphic terms to get moving and start kicking George Bush’s tail.
Dukakis smiled. “OK,” he said. “Very good. We’ll do it.”
Falls Behind in Polls
With three weeks until the election, Dukakis knows he clearly needs to do something. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released Monday shows Dukakis has fallen a staggering 17 points behind Republican nominee George Bush. The poll of 1,378 voters conducted Friday through Sunday showed Bush leading 55% to 38%, with only 7% undecided.
In Ohio, Dukakis is 11 points behind Bush, according to a separate poll of 1,062 voters by the Akron Beacon Journal. The paper reported that Bush is supported by 47% of likely voters, and Dukakis by 36%. The balance were undecided.
Dukakis appeared frustrated about the polls, saying, “The business of polls is really having a terrible effect” on the race. “It’s terrible now we’ve got a new set of numbers that have absolutely no relation to anything we have or other people have, so you spend two or three days” responding to questions about it.
“I can only tell you that there are other polls that say very different things about where we are and where the race is,” Dukakis told reporters in Dayton early Monday evening.
“It’s very tight and it’s a real horse race and has been for many weeks,” he said.
Phoned Ohio Voters
Nevertheless, the Dukakis campaign’s own survey here confirms the difficulties he faces. For the last 12 nights, for example, campaign workers have phoned hundreds of Ohio voters to ask their view of the presidency.
Do they want a President who will continue steady economic growth, be strong on fighting crime, continue to build national defense, and stand up to the Russians?
Or do they want a President who will be on the side of working families, stand up against foreign competition for our jobs, and be a strong advocate for affordable health care and education?
Voters consistently chose the second option by 2 to 1 over the first, according to campaign adviser Paul Bograd. Although Democrats expected that to help Dukakis, Bograd said, a follow-up question brought bad news.
“The problem we found was people think both statements are about George Bush,” Bograd said. “We obviously have to sharpen our message.”
‘Good Jobs at Good Wages’
It was with that daunting task that Dukakis campaigned across this key industrial state Monday to preach economic nationalism, stronger trade policies, and revive his long-famous promise of “good jobs at good wages.”
“Jobs you can support a family on, jobs that provide health insurance for workers and their families,” Dukakis told about 200 employees at the worker-owned North Coast Brass and Copper Co. in Euclid, a Cleveland suburb. “And that’s not just a slogan. That comes from the gut.”
“George Bush says he believes in the dignity of work,” he added. “But Mr. Bush saw nothing, said nothing, and did nothing while his Republican colleagues in Congress used every trick in the book to keep the minimum wage a poverty wage.”
“Ask Mr. Bush if he can look a woman in the eye who scrubs floors for a living to support her family on $3.35 an hour,” he continued. “Ask him what he’d tell a steelworker who lost his job and has to deliver pizzas for a living. . . . Ask him if that’s what he means by ‘a kinder, gentler nation.’ ”
The message clearly appealed to many of the blue-collar, heavily Democratic workers in a plant where 500 employees were forced to cut their own wages and benefits last January to help keep their jobs.
Jobs Leaving Country
“The problem is jobs are going out of the country,” said Johnny Wilkerson, 61, a forklift driver. “I never seen where a Republican did anything to help the working man.”
“I like what he wants to do about health care, jobs, wages,” said Mike Gabriel, 32, a machine operator. “Dukakis shows a concern for the people.”
“I’m a Republican, but we need a change,” agreed John Corlew, 45, who makes $10.40 an hour as a maintenance worker. “I raised two kids, put ‘em through college. Without my wife working, there’s no way I could do that.”
Dukakis tried to ease his starched, button-down image by mingling with diners at the ersatz ‘50s-style eatery in Cleveland, and by talking informally about drugs, schools and Social Security with two dozen parents and children later in the otherwise empty Varsity Bowling Alley in Dayton.
Dukakis then did something he has never attempted in his 19-month campaign: without loosening his tie, he bowled.
Tries Hand at Bowling
“I haven’t done this in 10 years,” he acknowledged. His first ball knocked down seven pins. His second hit the gutter. “Aargh,” he said. His third clipped three pins, while his fourth hit a more respectable eight pins.
Ohio has 23 electoral votes and both campaigns have invested heavily here. Dukakis has visited the state six times this fall, and his aides said they will run special TV ads across the state before the Nov. 8 election.
Charles Baker, Dukakis’ field director, said the campaign has 30 staffers in Ohio, including seven organizers brought in 10 days ago from the now-abandoned effort in Florida. The Ohio campaign also has 6,000 precinct captains, and phone banks are calling 11,000 voters a night, he said.
“What’s clear is people are not ready to make a decision yet,” Baker said. “Which gives us the sense that we can turn it around.”
But the campaign was forced to bring in former Ohio political operative Don Sweitzer, finance chair for the Democratic National Committee, several weeks ago to help soothe relations with disgruntled local and state Democratic officials.
“They weren’t exactly reached out to in the early part of this campaign,” Sweitzer said. He insisted those problems were over, and that the campaign’s scheduling, advertising and political message were back on track.
“The rest is up to Mike Dukakis,” Sweitzer said.
And the candidate gave no sign of giving up when Ernie Laycox, a 36-year-old factory machinist, reminded him at the bowling alley that “people say you’re the underdog.”
“So were the Los Angeles Dodgers until two days ago,” Dukakis replied evenly. The crowd laughed.