Michael S. Dukakis’ Democratic presidential campaign went on full defense Saturday.
In speeches and in new TV ads, Dukakis, running mate Lloyd Bentsen and other top Democrats finally joined forces to fight off the Republican charges that have dogged their campaign for weeks.
“The time has come to get the truth out,” Bentsen said in a joint appearance with Dukakis at Pipefitters Hall No. 195 here. “About furloughs. About gun control. About defense. Why do Republicans fear the truth? For the same reason baloney fears the slicer.”
With the Nov. 8 election fast approaching, the day’s events offered the best evidence yet that the “hot button” political agenda set by Republican presidential nominee George Bush now dominates the race.
Blames Own Campaign
Indeed, in a five-minute, nationally televised, $150,000 commercial Saturday night, Dukakis conceded for the first time that his own campaign is partially to blame for GOP success in boxing him in as a “liberal.”
“Some of you don’t know much more about me than a name and a set of labels,” Dukakis said.
“Part of the fault may rest with our own effort,” he continued. “But I think it is also fair to say that the other side has pursued a campaign of distortion and distraction--of fear and of smear.”
It is that counterpunch--that Bush has overstepped the bounds of political decency--that aides hope will enable the Massachusetts governor to overtake Bush’s apparent lead in the next 16 days.
“I don’t think it’s defensive,” senior adviser Kirk O’Donnell said. “When you question the credibility of the other campaign, as we are, it’s offense.”
Still, the Democrats clearly are following Bush’s lead. At a crowded outdoor rally Saturday afternoon at Hawkinsville High School, 150 miles south of Atlanta, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn offered graphic, even gory, details about Republican-led state and federal prison furlough programs.
Tells of Rapes, Stabbings
Nunn described how men and women were raped, stabbed and strangled by prisoners released in Texas, California and other states. One victim, Nunn told the hushed crowd, had 28 stab wounds and was discovered by her two young children. “Inscribed on her tombstone are the words, ‘Please don’t forget me,’ ” he said.
“A governor and a President can’t prevent all the horrible crimes we have today,” Nunn said. “But a presidential candidate can be expected to tell the truth . . . . Vice President Bush has a responsibility to do that.”
“Mike Dukakis tells the truth,” agreed former President Jimmy Carter, who also appeared. “You can’t say that about the other side at all.”
Dukakis makes his own case for truth in politics in his five-minute ad. He denounced Republican TV ads that spotlight the reeking sewers and industrial waste that have fouled Boston Harbor for generations.
“We’re already cleaning Boston Harbor,” Dukakis said. “But what they don’t tell you is that it was their Administration that cut off funds to clean it up--and that Mr. Bush supported the veto of the Clean Water Act--not once, but twice.”
‘That’s a Lie’
Dukakis went on to blast Republican TV ads that accuse him of being soft on criminals. “That’s a lie,” Dukakis said.
And in what is now a stump speech staple, Dukakis appears to appeal for voters’ sympathy by citing his family’s tragic experience with violent crime.
“At the age of 77, my father was gagged, and beaten, and robbed,” he said. “My brother was killed by a hit-and-run driver . . . . I’ve led the fight against crime and drugs in my own state, and I intend to do so as President so that other families will not have to live through that kind of pain.”
Two Dukakis TV ads broadcast in key states this week also respond to Bush’s attacks. One, titled “George Bush’s False Advertising,” aims at Bush ads that focus on the now-canceled Massachusetts furlough program. The Bush ad features a police “mug shot” of Willie Horton, a now-infamous furloughed murderer.
But the narrator in the Dukakis version says: “Bush won’t talk about the thousands of drug kingpins furloughed from federal prisons while he led the war on drugs.” This ad features a mug shot of “one of his furloughed heroin dealers,” and a photo of police hauling off the body of his victim, “a pregnant mother of two.”
The second ad tries to counter a Bush ad that ridicules Dukakis’ ride in an Army tank last month. The Dukakis version begins with him switching off the Bush ad on TV. Bush’s ads, Dukakis says, are “full of lies and he knows it.”
Dukakis aides hope that they can reach voters only now paying attention. But with national polls showing Dukakis still trailing Bush by a wide margin, many Democrats fear the shift in strategy is too little, too late.
“They still haven’t answered (the Republican ads) very well,” Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who traveled with Dukakis for two days, said in an interview. “But they’re trying.”
There is a growing belief in the Dukakis campaign that Bentsen is especially effective in denouncing the Republican charges. On Saturday, a crew was on hand to film his feisty speech in Beaumont for “testimonial” advertising in Texas. Republican attacks on Dukakis in that state have left the Democrats 10 points behind, according to the latest Texas poll, published today in the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle.