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Bentsen Gets Bigger Campaign Role : Dukakis Aides Alter Strategy and Decide to Feature Him on TV

Times Staff Writer

In a strategic turnaround, the campaign of Michael S. Dukakis Wednesday boosted the exposure of the No. 2 man on the ticket, sending Lloyd Bentsen to Los Angeles to be interviewed on a network news program and to make a five-minute advertisement that will be broadcast nationally.

In the interview, broadcast live on CBS, Bentsen accused the Republicans of running a “miserable” negative campaign and made clear his belief that the charges “should have been answered” earlier by the Dukakis campaign. Later he taped the lengthy ad, which highlights his own response to the attacks. It is to be aired on ABC Sunday night.

Until now, Dukakis’ advisers had rejected suggestions that Bentsen be given a major role in campaign ads out of concern that Dukakis might somehow be upstaged by his running mate.

Bentsen Popularity

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But with Dukakis making little progress in the polls, many of which show Bentsen to be the most popular of the four candidates running for executive office, the campaign decided late Tuesday to buy the advertising time that will allow Bentsen to speak directly to a national audience. It also decided Wednesday to tape additional footage of Bentsen to be used in Dukakis advertising next week.

Arguing that the “vice presidential part of the campaign is becoming much more salient,” Dukakis advisers said the campaign hopes to take advantage of polls showing that the Democrats fare far better when voters view the election as a contest between tickets and not simply between Dukakis and Bush.

“To understand this as shoring up (Dukakis) is to misunderstand it,” insisted Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Dukakis. But he said the Bentsen advertisement would seek in part to “credential Gov. Dukakis” as the conservative Texas senator offers a testimonial to his running mate.

Seek Contrast With Quayle

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The campaign hoped also that Bentsen’s increased national exposure would call attention once again to his Republican counterpart, whose campaign has been waged mostly in small towns and before sympathetic audiences. “Let’s face it,” Devine said. “The Republicans wouldn’t dream of putting Dan Quayle on a set with Dan Rather or anybody else.”

Seeking to capitalize on the “drag” that polls show Quayle adds to the Republican ticket, Bentsen dwelt at length Wednesday on his Republican counterpart. In a speech outside City Hall in Riverside, he mentioned Quayle’s name 14 times and suggested for the first time that even the prospect of a Quayle vice presidency would be “frightening.”

“George Bush has big plans for Dan Quayle,” he said. "(Quayle) wants to play a major role in national security. Doesn’t that shake you up a bit? That’s a frightening thought! Are you ready for that?” The crowed roared “No.”

Later Bentsen returned to a more familiar theme, saying that “millions of Americans would agree that Dan Quayle is not qualified to step in if he had to and be President of the United States.”

Calls California Crucial

In the speech Bentsen acknowledged for the first time that the crucial California primary was “the one we have to win.”

But his campaign elected to pass up a scheduled event Wednesday in Bakersfield in order to make the national appearance and attempt to “crunch” Bush’s growing lead in national polls. Dukakis strategists fear that if the gap endures through the week, even the Democratic faithful will become too discouraged to fight back in the final weeks.

The turnabout in thinking on Bentsen’s role and the last-minute nature of planning for Wednesday’s interview and taping gave the appearance of a Dukakis campaign scrambling in search of a much-needed boost. But senior adviser Devine insisted that the sudden changes reflected only an operation that was “evolving day to day in terms of its tactics” as the election nears.

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