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Dukakis May Be Staging Comeback : Longtime Democrats in Key Big States Leave Bush as Polls Show Gap Closing

Times Political Writer

Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis, who appeared in recent weeks to be plunging toward an overwhelming defeat, now shows signs of arresting his slide in several key states and narrowing the lead of Republican standard-bearer George Bush.

A number of factors are contributing to Dukakis’ home-stretch resurgence, most notably the return of longtime Democrats to the fold after flirting with the idea of balloting for Bush. But whatever the causes for the Massachusetts governor’s comeback, none has so far been sufficient to allow him to shed the role of underdog that he has been forced to play since Bush took charge of the campaign last August.

Dukakis’ gains have been most evident in such big states as California, Ohio and Texas, where both Democratic and Republican polls now show him trailing Bush by only single digits, after being more than 10 points behind. And surveys in both campaigns indicate that the Democrat is now also positioned within striking distance or better in Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.

Nevertheless, the hopes rising in the Dukakis camp are tempered by the recognition that Dukakis probably needs to win at least six of these seven big states, with a total of 204 electoral votes, to have a chance of gaining the 270 electoral votes required for a majority.

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This is because Dukakis lags so far behind Bush in the smaller states of the South and the Rockies, as well as two other big states, Florida and New Jersey.

And surveys of the big seven battleground states by pollsters in both parties indicate that, with 10 days to go to Election Day, the Democrat is actually leading only in one--New York, where a Marist Institute survey completed last week showed him ahead of Bush by 47% to 43%.

Still, Democrats are glad enough to have some positive numbers to count for the first time since Dukakis’ pedestrian performance in the Oct. 13 presidential debate dashed the hopes of his supporters and turned off many uncommitted voters.

“I think we’re getting some movement for the first time in a while,” said Ed Reilly, a Democratic pollster working with the Dukakis campaign. “Dukakis is having a strong finish to his campaign, while Bush is having trouble switching from negative to positive.”

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Just the evidence of Dukakis’ increased aggressiveness is helping to lift Democratic spirits--and poll ratings. “There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm a couple of weeks ago,” Democratic Sen. Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota said, adding that Dukakis has closed to within two points of Bush in his state from eights point behind in the past week. “What changed things is a sense that something is really happening.”

Republicans sought to discount the Dukakis gains as an inevitable result of the Democratic advantage in nominal party allegiance. “We expect a tightening, that’s traditional,” said Bush Press Secretary Sheila Tate.

But in fact, not everyone on Bush’s board of strategists anticipated a loss of GOP momentum. Indeed, 10 days ago, Paul Manaforte, Bush’s director of surrogate operations, said of the period then just ahead: “This is the week we win the election.”

The plan outlined by Manaforte in an interview was for Bush, by campaigning hard in such key states as Illinois, California and Ohio, to nail down the presidency in the week just ended. This would free him up to spend the last 10 days of the campaign helping out the Republican effort to get back the Senate.

But as Republicans watched their lead in these battlegrounds erode under the pressure of the Dukakis counterattack, plans for executing the grand strategy for taking over the Senate were called into question.

At week’s end, Bush’s schedule for the final campaign days was in a state of flux. The Times learned, however, that the vice president will be spending two days this week in Illinois, one of the states he hoped to secure last week. Bush also campaigned in the state on Saturday.

Bush strategists earlier had announced that the vice president, in an apparent attempt to offset the intensified onslaught from the Dukakis campaign, would accept interviews from network television shows--which up until now he has turned down in favor of his own controlled campaign events.

Apart from the tendency of self-described Democrats to revert to their party as Election Day approached, here are other factors cited by Democrats as explanations for the improvement in Dukakis’ fortunes:

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--Populism, Harvard style. In the past 10 days Dukakis has finally emphasized the class-conscious economic themes many Democrats had long hoped he would adopt. Using his “I’m on your side” slogan, to contrast himself with Bush, who he charges is on the side of the wealthy and privileged, Dukakis for the first time in the campaign has been stirring genuine enthusiasm in his audiences.

Ironically, the underdog motif inherent in populism is easier for Dukakis to render now, when he is far behind, than it was earlier on when he was in front and thought of by many as a liberal elitist.

--The attack on negativism. Although Bush and his supporters contend that the Democrats introduced negativism into the campaign, by ridiculing Bush at their convention, the Democrats appeared to have persuaded many voters that it is Bush who is mostly at fault for the dark side of the campaign.

“It’s probably the best thing they have done,” said one GOP strategist of the Dukakis attack on Bush’s tactics, “because it has made some people question their inclination to vote for Bush.” And Democrats say that by accusing Bush of trying to avoid the issues, through negativism, they have gotten voters to focus on Dukakis’ own issue positions.

--"Iron Mike’s” warmer self. Dukakis failed in the second debate to come out of his managerial shell, as his supporters had hoped. But he has been more successful subsequently in projecting his human side, in large part through campaign commercials that show him sitting in his living room, in his shirt sleeves, addressing voters directly.

Kitty Dukakis helps, too. In introducing her husband at rallies she frequently cites his support for her when their first child died to demonstrate human qualities not often evident on the stump. “Does that show sensitivity and caring?” she asks. “You bet it does”

--The Quayle factor. Democrats have never stopped pounding away at Bush’s choice of Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate, citing it as evidence of Bush’s alleged weakness and poor judgment. This appears to be making an impression in key states such as California and New York.

In the Marist Institute poll in New York, voters given a chance to select presidential choices without having to consider running mates gave Bush a three-point advantage over Dukakis. In the same survey, the Democratic ticket of Dukakis and Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen had a four-point advantage over Bush and Quayle.

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Staff writers John Balzar and David Lauter contributed to this story.


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