Until the second presidential debate, Maria Lazarich was thinking seriously about casting her presidential ballot for Democrat Michael S. Dukakis.
“He has some good ideas about day-care centers and health care,” she said as she and her husband, Joseph, a retired New York City police officer, browsed through a neighborhood department store.
But when the Lazarichs watched the debate, 10 days ago, they were appalled at Dukakis’ response to the very first question--whether if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, he would favor the death penalty for her killer.
It was not just that Dukakis reiterated his opposition to capital punishment, which the Lazarichs both support, as does Republican nominee George Bush. Maria Lazarich was also put off by Dukakis’ manner. “He was so mechanical, he was like a robot,” she said.
Her reaction helps explain why, little more than two weeks before the election, Dukakis is having serious difficulties not only here in New York but also in the populous neighboring states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Because Bush has been far more successful in defining the campaign in his terms than Dukakis has been in getting across his own message, the Democratic nominee has been losing the opportunity to win over potential backers like Maria Lazarich.
“We have to crack through the veneer of Bush’s negative rhetoric and negative advertising to lay out what a Dukakis presidency would be like and what he could do for the average American,” says Charles Baker, national field director of the Dukakis campaign.
Dukakis has been having similar difficulties in most other parts of the country ever since the Republicans launched their disciplined effort last summer to depict him as far too liberal for the middle-of-the-road American voter.
But the Massachusetts governor’s predicament is particularly crucial here. If the Democratic Party, after losing four of the last five presidential elections, had an electoral base anywhere in the country entering the 1988 campaign, it was in the industrial Northeast. In this region, the party’s cadre has been traditionally bolstered by the muscle of the trade unions; the big city machines of New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Newark, as well as the masses of urban Roman Catholics, blacks, Jews and Latinos.
And not so many weeks ago Dukakis appeared to enjoy significant advantages in these three important mid-Atlantic states. With a total of 77 electoral votes, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey provide nearly 30% of the 270 electoral votes needed for a majority, and by most reckonings Dukakis needs at least two out of the three to have a reasonable chance of capturing the White House.
Support Found Faltering
But here, as in most other places, the polls show that Dukakis’ backing has been faltering under the withering attacks of the Bush campaign.
The ominous tidings for the Democrats are that New Jersey’s 16 electoral votes seem to be headed in Bush’s direction. Pennsylvania, with 25 electoral votes, is considered a tossup. And even the longtime bulwark of New York, with its 36 electoral votes, now seems threatened by the Republican tide.
Indeed, last week Bush sharpened that prospect by invading New York City, the cornerstone of Democratic strength in the Empire State, to speak at Christ the King High School here in Queens, where he received the endorsement of more than a score of local police organizations and the badge of a young police officer gunned down last February while guarding a witness in a drug case.
Republicans gloated over the fact that as the campaign moved into the homestretch, Bush was strong enough elsewhere to make this sortie into the opposition stronghold, while Dukakis was being forced to spend much of his time shoring up his own base, campaigning for black votes in a Harlem church and rallying steelworkers in economically stricken western Pennsylvania.
In Queens, tragic circumstances--the slaying of two more New York police officers in the line of duty--superheated the emotional environment for Bush’s war-on-crime message. In the gymnasium, where maroon and gold banners proclaimed the school’s past basketball triumphs, youngsters cheered the demands of Bush and his surrogates for the death penalty as lustily as if they were celebrating a victory for their team.
Down the street from the school, in Jay’s Bar, the mood was much the same. Ray Rodriguez, who like most other New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent voted for Democrat Walter F. Mondale in 1984, intends to vote for Bush in 1988 because he thinks the vice president will be tougher on crime.
“He’s an experienced man, and he seems stronger than Dukakis,” Rodriguez said as he sipped a lunch-hour beer. Referring to a Bush commercial attacking Dukakis for his record on furloughing prisoners, Rodriguez said: “I heard he let out 268 prisoners on weekend passes.”
But crime is only one of the reasons why Bush finds support in this nominally Democratic neighborhood. One stool over from Ray Rodriguez, Vinnie O’Keefe, a 25-year-old John Hancock insurance underwriter, explained that he will vote for Bush because “he’s all for a strong defense.” O’Keefe also likes it that Bush was head of the CIA and worked closely with President Reagan.
Worries About Social Agenda
As for Dukakis, O’Keefe said: “I like what he’s trying to do about abolishing the drug trade.” But O’Keefe added he believes that Dukakis “wants to build up social programs,” which O’Keefe worries the country cannot afford.
Even voters who are only mild in their support for Bush are turning to him because of their uneasiness with Dukakis. In the shopping center near the high school, Mary Andreiuolo, an office worker, said: “Being a lady, Bush scares me,” explaining she feels Republicans are not sufficiently concerned with women’s rights. But Andreiuolo intends to vote for him because “Dukakis wants to spend money on minorities who are not going to be responsible with what they do with it.”
From the start, Democratic strategists had counted heavily on Catholic voters like Andreiuolo helping their cause in the Northeast, where Catholics make up a large share of the electorate. The theory was that Catholics, who tended to vote Democratic in the pre-Reagan era, would be drawn back to the fold by Dukakis’ ethnic background.
But Bush’s attacks on Dukakis on such issues as crime and the Pledge of Allegiance appear to have struck a chord among Catholic voters, who are generally regarded as conservative on social issues.
Poll Finds ‘Dramatic Shift’
A Gallup poll released last week reported that “in a dramatic shift,” white Catholics, who had been backing Dukakis by a 57% to 37% margin last July, now back Bush, 46% to 43%. These national figures help explain why Dukakis’ fortunes have dipped sharply during the same period in this heavily Catholic region.
Actually, despite the early optimism in the Dukakis camp engendered by his strong showing in the polls, these three big Northeastern states never figured to be easy pickings for the Democratic standard-bearer. One big reason is that most of the area--with the notable exception of the steel country in western Pennsylvania--is still riding the crest of the Reagan economic recovery, a reality that strongly influences the outlook of many voters.
“I like the shape the economy is in,” said Dave Eckert, a retired merchant seaman who turned out for a Bush rally in Bloomfield, N.J., last month. “I think Bush will keep things going,” said Eckert, who still has bitter memories of the last Democratic presidency.
“When (Jimmy) Carter was in office,” he recalled, “everything stopped.”
Balloting Is the Problem
Joseph Rizzo, secretary-treasurer of Local 1262 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, helped turn out his union members for a Dukakis rally in Jersey City last month. But Rizzo conceded that he is having a harder time persuading them to cast their ballots for Dukakis, even though the union, along with the rest of organized labor, has endorsed the Democratic nominee.
Rizzo estimated that his 12,000 members and their families voted for Reagan by about 70% to 30% in 1984, and he does not know how much he can change those figures.
Rizzo himself thinks “we need a Democrat in the White House to save the labor movement.” But he concedes that right now the local’s members, whose average wage is about $12.50 a hour, are “doing pretty good.”
In western Pennsylvania, conditions are far different, and voters are more receptive to Dukakis. “There are houses in this area that have been on the market for three or four years,” said Elaine Smith, political director for Local 585 of the Service Employees International Union, a group that helped organize Dukakis’ rally last week in McKeesport, about 25 miles from Pittsburgh. “There is just no economic reason for new people to move into this area.”
In the northern part of the state, in Erie, the economy is no better. “Dukakis is going over very well,” said Erie Councilman Joseph Giles, who is program director for a local community action organization.
“This is largely a blue-collar area,” he said. “And things haven’t improved in the last eight years.” Giles noted that while Dukakis’ favorite campaign battle cry of “good jobs for good wages” may be ridiculed as a cliche in some quarters, “around here, people like the idea.”
Still, even as ardent a Dukakis backer as Giles would like to see his candidate argue his case with more fire and force. “He ought to do a better job of representing himself,” Giles said. “He talks about the right programs but you get the feeling that the heartbeat is missing.”
Here is a brief look at the order of battle in these three states:
NEW JERSEY--Among the many political opportunities the Dukakis campaign has so far failed to exploit, New Jersey stands out. As recently as June, Dukakis had a lead of close to 15 points. And, with its high-tech, surging economy and an ethnic mix similar to that of Massachusetts, the state seemed made to order for Dukakis.
But here as elsewhere Bush was able to take the initiative by focusing on such issues as crime and patriotism, even visiting a flag factory in Bloomfield last month to dramatize his support for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Ironically, Dukakis has also been hurt in this state, which suffers greatly from pollution, by his environmental record. Democrats once thought this issue would be a powerful vote-getter for them. Instead, Bush has put Dukakis on the defensive by calling attention to his attempt as governor to gain federal permission to dump Massachusetts wastes off the Jersey shore. The Boston Harbor commercials have not helped any, either.
In a more positive vein, Bush has been able to project himself as an independent soul who is nevertheless the suitable legatee of Reagan’s policies, which have produced prosperity for New Jersey. “Bush has managed to emancipate himself from Reagan and yet embrace him,” says Cliff Zukin, director of the Eagleton/Newark Star-Ledger poll.
Dukakis, who has not been in New Jersey for about four weeks, scrapped a plan to campaign there last week when he was next door in New York, and members of his staff say they do not know if he will make another visit before the election. Republicans, boasting that their lead is nearly 10 percentage points, confidently declare that if Dukakis does return, he will be wasting his time.
NEW YORK--For all of this state’s celebrated ties to the national Democratic Party, dating back to former Gov. Al Smith (to whom both Dukakis and Bush paid tribute last week at a Manhattan dinner), when New York goes Democratic, it does so by relatively narrow margins. This year is not likely to be an exception.
A poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion showed Dukakis about 7 points ahead in mid-September. And some Republicans say Bush has closed that gap completely. But Lee Miringoff, Marist poll director, says that early soundings from his statewide poll, due out the end of this week, indicate that Dukakis is still in front, though by a narrower margin than in September.
Black voters pose a worry for Dukakis, Miringoff says. Though they give him overwhelming support, their interest in the election seems minimal, suggesting a low turnout that could wreck Dukakis’ hopes for victory here. On the other hand, Dukakis’ support among New York’s big Jewish population is solid--about 70%, Miringoff says--and Jews can be counted on to turn out.
It is not yet clear whether Bush’s visit to Queens last week was part of a serious effort to take the state away from Dukakis or merely a feint to force the Democrat to expend time and resources here. Bush strategists say they have not decided whether the vice president will come to New York again. If he does, it will be a sign that the Republicans believe that an electoral vote majority is well in hand and that Bush can afford to try for a landslide.
PENNSYLVANIA--In the closing days of the 1976 presidential election campaign, Carter made a special point of lunching with Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor, Frank L. Rizzo, with whom he had been feuding. Paying court to Rizzo paid off for Carter, who credited the mayor with a big role in Carter’s narrow victory in the state that Election Day, the last such success Democrats have had in the state.
But in 1988, Frank Rizzo is no longer mayor and no longer a Democrat. With him gone over to the GOP and black Mayor W. Wilson Goode ensconced in Philadelphia’s City Hall, Republicans claim that Democratic voters in Philadelphia are racially polarized and that there is no Democrat with clout comparable to Rizzo’s to pull them together.
Democrats, however, argue that Rizzo’s departure has eased tensions between black and white. Dukakis’ state campaign director, Lanny Johnson, says that, “Philadelphia is less of a problem for us than some other cities,” particularly Chicago and Detroit, which also have black mayors and more than a few resentful white ethnic voters.
Philadelphia is one of four power centers in this politically Balkanized state. The other three are the suburbs around Philadelphia, and central Pennsylvania, both strongly Republican, and western Pennsylvania, around Pittsburgh, which is just about as heavily Democratic. The distribution of votes is even enough so that both sides are predicting a tight race to the end.
Democrats believe that the economic slump in the west and the help of Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Robert P. Casey, will give them the edge. Republicans say that Dukakis is more liberal than Casey and too liberal for the state by far. Says Gordon Woodrow, campaign director of the GOP’s Victory ’88 organization: “We are going to show people that he (Dukakis) is a taxer and a spender.”
Battleground: The Mid-Atlantic States The industrial, populous mid-Atlantic states are a must-win region for Democrats if they are to have a reasonable chance of overcoming the Republican edge in the South and in the Rockies. In the 1970’s and ’80’s, however, New Jersey has gone for the Republicans in every presidential election, and New York and Pennsylvania have voted for the Democrats only once, in 1976. NEW YORK Electoral votes; 36 Population: 17.8 million--approx. 69% Anglo, 16% black, 12% Latino, 3% other. Registered voters: 7.5 million--47% Democratic, 33% Republican, 20% unaffiliated or minor parties. PENNSYLVANIA Electoral votes: 25 Population: 11.9 million--approx. 89% white, 9% black, 2% other. Registered voters: 5.3 million--53% Democratic, 41% Republican, 6% unaffiliated or minor parties. NEW JERSEY Electoral votes: 16 Population: 7.7 million--approx. 81% white, 14% black, 5% other. Registered voters: 3.7 million--34% Democratic, 21% Republican, 45% unaffiliated or minor parties.