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Dukakis Says Race Is Tightening, Decries Bush ‘Cocoon’

Times Staff Writer

When a candidate wants to demonstrate that he’s coming back, nothing works so well as a large crowd.

And when a candidate wants a large crowd, nothing works so well as Michigan and its huge, well-organized labor unions.

And so, heading home for a short pause before his final stretch run, Michael S. Dukakis brought his Democratic presidential campaign here Friday, to bellwether Macomb County in the Detroit suburbs, to speak to thousands of auto workers, steel workers, communications workers and students at a community college.

“This race is tightening up,” he told them. “It’s tightening up here in Michigan. It’s tightening up all over this country, and you can know it, feel it and sense it.”

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Maybe.

Finds Workable Slogan

In the final weeks of the campaign, Dukakis has found a slogan--"I’m on your side"--that seems to work. And he has a strategy--contrasting his accessibility in television interviews with Vice President George Bush’s “cocoon"--that his aides hope will attract voters to give him a “second look.”

What he still does not have is a lead. Aides like campaign vice chairman John Sasso claim their polls show Dukakis has gained ground quickly since last weekend, although they will not release the polls.

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Even so, however, they do not claim to be ahead in such key states as California, where Sasso says Dukakis is now down four points, or Ohio, where a poll for Democratic Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum shows Dukakis down by six.

But with rock singer Bob Seger warming up the crowd and a phalanx of Democratic-elected officials behind him, Dukakis talked of victory here. He denounced safety violations at government nuclear plants as a “betrayal of our national trust and our national security.” And he once again criticized Bush’s plan to cut taxes on capital gains.

He asked his listeners to raise their hands if they think they would benefit from Bush’s plan--only Seger, laughing, did so--then he received cheers as he asked how many think they would benefit from his plans to increase opportunity for college loans, to reduce the U.S. trade deficit and to cut drug use in schools.

The speech was not one of Dukakis’ best--he is as a candidate highly susceptible to ebbs and flows of energy--and the ebullient crowd bused in from throughout the Detroit area had cooled noticeably by the time he finished. But, still, the welcome was warm and the mood upbeat.

Macomb County is the sort of swing territory Dukakis must capture if he is to have a shot at overtaking Bush. Unions are strong here and the population heavily weighted toward white ethnics and registered Democrats. But Republicans who appeal to the county’s voters--from former Michigan Gov. George Romney to President Reagan--have made Macomb the base of their Michigan victories.

Dukakis aides say they began making gains in areas like this when they started a more aggressive, populist attack against Bush at the beginning of the week. The race, they claim, has begun to change since polls taken over the weekend, such as a Los Angeles Times poll released Monday that found Dukakis 11 points down in California.

See Bush Feeling Heat

And the aides point with glee toward changes in Bush’s strategy, such as his new willingness to appear on morning television talk shows, as signs that the Bush side, too, is feeling some heat.

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“If Bush has to come out of his cocoon, he’s in trouble,” Sasso said. “He’s so cocooned up, I see he won’t even commit to having regular press conferences if he’s elected President,” something Dukakis has agreed to do.

Feeling that his new speeches are working, Dukakis stuck to his lines again Friday, linking his criticism of safety problems at government nuclear weapons plants to his criticism Thursday of Bush’s record on workplace safety issues.

Dukakis told the crowd he had met recently with two couples who live near the government’s Fernald, Ohio, nuclear plant, which makes radioactive fuel for hydrogen bombs. The Energy Department recently admitted that it had for years covered up leaks of toxic materials at the plant. Two other plants, at Savannah River in South Carolina and at Rocky Flats, near Denver, also have had serious safety problems revealed recently.

One of the couples Dukakis met with lives with a contaminated water supply. The man in the other couple, who worked for 27 years in the plant, now suffers from lung cancer.

“Imagine feeling what they feel,” Dukakis said. “To live near a plant for decades, to find out it was leaking poison, to find out that your government knew and did nothing. That’s a disgrace.”

In a Dukakis Administration, he pledged, the nuclear weapons plants would be “safe and well-managed and well-run.”

Dukakis also criticized Reagan’s veto Thursday of a bill that would have protected government workers who blow the whistle on waste and fraud in federal programs.

“That veto simply can’t be explained,” he said. “I wonder if the vice president is going to stand up and tell us where he stands.”

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