Vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen wrapped up a California campaign swing Friday with an anti-drug rally in Oakland, then headed home to Texas to launch a last-ditch effort to pull off a victory in this crucial state.
Bentsen is scheduled to remain here for much of the rest of the campaign, clear evidence that Democratic strategists have come to see victory in Texas as vital if the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket is to pull off an upset.
"There's no question about it," said Joseph O'Neill, Bentsen's chief of staff. "Texas has got to be in the mix."
Until recently, victory scenarios outlined by Dukakis aides rarely included Texas, where the ticket trailed by more than 10 points in polls despite Bentsen's favorite-son appeal. But a combination of dwindling prospects in some big Northern states and improving signs in Texas have made the state central to the hopeful new scenarios for a Dukakis comeback.
After trailing by double-digit margins for the past three weeks, the Dukakis campaign in Texas has been heartened by new polls showing that the gap has narrowed to seven points.
Welcomed home by a rally Friday evening at the University of Texas, Bentsen claimed that campaign tracking polls showed the Democrats have closed to "within a point" of Vice President George Bush in California.
At the anti-drug rally at an Oakland high school, Bentsen--who is asked repeatedly about suggestions that Democrats would be faring better if he were heading the ticket--chose to give himself a public "lesson in humility" as he read aloud a letter written to him by a 9th-grade student there.
"I don't know much about you or your campaign," the letter said. "But if you're running with Michale Dukakis, I guess that makes you OK."
"Fair enough," said Bentsen, as the students laughed loudly.
But the inner-city assembly hushed as Bentsen continued to read: "I hope you make it possible for our country to become drug-free," the 9th-grader had written to him. "Being a young black woman in America is hard. Day after day, I watch people slowly fading away. I walk home seeing young men and women dealing and hustling drugs."
A Dukakis Administration would "take the battle to the enemy" in the war on drugs, Bentsen promised the students.