After months of avoiding what his opponent calls the "L word," Michael S. Dukakis on Sunday proudly pronounced himself a "liberal in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy."
As his campaign basked in the twin glows of warm San Joaquin Valley sunshine and encouraging polls, the Democratic presidential nominee also challenged Vice President George Bush to an hourlong, one-on-one election eve debate, a challenge Bush spokesmen immediately rejected.
Riding a chartered train north past the lush cotton fields and rich orchards of the electorally crucial Central Valley, Dukakis followed a route John F. Kennedy took in 1960.
"This train, like John Kennedy's, is ticketed all the way to the Oval Office," he told enthusiastic audi ences. "Mr. Bush is coasting, and we're fighting."
But Dukakis' battle cry had a new tone. "We need a President in the tradition, yes, the liberal tradition" of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy, he said, as the crowd in the small valley town of Hanford cheered. "Presidents who were on the side of average Americans."
Later, however, at an outdoor press conference in Fresno--his first in more than three weeks--he declined to say whether he also identifies with the liberal tradition represented by George S. McGovern, Walter F. Mondale and former President Jimmy Carter.
"I'm not going to go through the litany," Dukakis said. "I'm proud of lots and lots of Democrats."
Defends Word's Meaning
At the same time, he said: "I'm not going to let the Republican Party pervert that word or give it a meaning it didn't have."
So an election campaign that once seemed devoid of issues and ideology now, in its final eight days, may be focusing suddenly on a definition: What does liberalism mean in the 1980s?
For months, Bush has tagged Dukakis as "the liberal governor of Massachusetts," attacking him as soft on crime, raising questions about his patriotism and linking him to the unpopular record of the Carter Administration.
Bush, said Dukakis campaign chairman Paul P. Brountas, has "tried to take liberalism to its extreme and almost use it as a word of terror."
Dukakis, anticipating that attack, originally insisted in his Democratic convention acceptance speech in July that the election was "not about ideology, it's about competence."
On Oct. 13, in his second debate with Bush, Dukakis decried the use of labels such as "liberal" in the campaign, saying: "I don't think these labels mean a thing. . . . Let's stop labeling each other, and let's get to the heart of the matter, which is the future of this country."
But with polls showing that his comeback in the presidential race is being fueled largely by older, traditional "New Deal" Democratic voters, Dukakis and his strategists have decided to take the label, define it their way and run with it.
Spurred by Reagan Remark
Dukakis, himself, says his new feistiness was spurred by a remark President Reagan recently made while campaigning for Bush in Missouri. Speaking in Truman's hometown of Independence, Reagan, who was a Democrat early in his life, claimed that Truman, if he were alive today, would support Bush.
"I'm not going to let the Republican party suggest for a moment that Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman or John Kennedy would vote for the Bush-Quayle ticket," Dukakis said. "They never would, they never would."
The liberalism of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy "helped to build the middle class in this country," he said in Fresno. "We'll continue to do so."
Throughout the day, as Dukakis traveled the 250 miles from Bakersfield to Stockton, his audiences responded to such rhetoric with lusty cheers. It was an extraordinary day capping an extraordinary week in which Dukakis revived a once near-dead campaign and brought it once again to within striking distance of Bush.
At each of the six events in Bakersfield, Hanford, Fresno, Merced, Modesto and Stockton, the crowds grew, and at each, Dukakis, who often in the past has shied away from accepting the applause of his audiences, lingered on stage to drink in the sight of cheering crowds. At one point, he even came back to the microphone to speak, this time in Spanish, after completing his standard stump speech.
While Dukakis insists that his basic message has not changed, "I'm articulating it better" now, he said at his press conference. He is gaining in the polls, he said, because he now is "doing a better job of explaining who Mike Dukakis is and what he believes and the political tradition he comes out of, which is the mainstream tradition in this country."
Dukakis has adopted a more populist style and more fiery rhetoric, repeatedly telling voters that he and running mate Lloyd Bentsen are "on your side" and that the Republican ticket is not.
Each day Dukakis has focused on at least one issue to make that point. On Sunday, campaigning through one of the nation's richest agricultural regions, he hammered at the Administration's refusal last week to file a complaint against Japan over Japanese barriers to U.S. rice exports.
Revives Popular Line
The Administration "didn't stand up, it rolled over" on that issue, he said. Then, for the first time in months, he revived one of the most popular lines from last summer's Democratic party convention, asking his Hanford audience: "Where was George?"
In a Dukakis Administration, he said, "we're going to bring those barriers down."
"From computer chips to corn chips," he said, a Democratic Administration would work for "more trade, more exports, more jobs, more income and more backbone in Washington, D.C."
Bush has been trying to counter Dukakis' new emphasis by accusing the Democrats of "dividing America."
But, said Dukakis, his policies would "unite America" by increasing employment and college opportunity. "If he wants to talk about this, I'd be happy to talk to him face-to-face," Dukakis said as he challenged Bush to a third debate, this time without a panel of questioners to separate the two candidates.
The two candidates have each purchased half an hour of time on all three TV networks on Monday night, election eve. Dukakis said he would give up his half hour if Bush did the same.
"We'd have a good solid discussion. . . . Let the American people decide," he said.
A Bush campaign spokesman in Washington quickly responded that in the Los Angeles debate--the second of two between Bush and Dukakis--Bush emphatically ruled out another such effort.
"At the last debate, the vice president made it quite clear that he felt that the American people had had enough debates and that it was time to move the campaign forward and get on with it," said spokesman Dave Demarest.
Aides Cite Polls
Dukakis aides, meanwhile, continued to insist that their polls show a noticeable tightening of the race. In California, for example, Bush's margin has been cut to less than two points in Democratic tracking polls, Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced) said.
Dukakis campaign vice chairman John Sasso said the campaign also had seen noticeable movement in most of the major states of the Midwest and even in some Southern states, such as Georgia and Florida. Although Dukakis is unlikely to carry Florida, a reduction of Bush's margin there could help the Democrats hold onto a Senate seat where the GOP nominee, Connie Mack, has been hoping for a significant boost from Bush's effort.
In California, the Central Valley has been a crucial battleground for both sides. Bush took a bus tour south, some two weeks ago, along almost the same route that Dukakis took Sunday running north.
The area is a stronghold of conservative "Reagan Democrats" but, as Dukakis' reception in Fresno showed, it also is heavy with the sort of ethnic voters for whom Dukakis' son-of-immigrants background has substantial appeal.
As Dukakis spoke in Fresno, the crowd of several thousand--similar in size to the one Bush addressed on his tour--cheered in several languages. Shouts of "Viva Dukakis" mixed with cheers of "Yasou" in Greek and "We like Mike" in numerous accents.
Kennedy, Dukakis reminded them, always said that if he had visited California one more time before the 1960 election he would have carried the state, which he lost by a narrow margin.
This time, he said, "the Republicans already are popping their champagne corks in their penthouses" but on Election Day, "we're the ones who will be celebrating, and we'll be doing it with California champagne."
Staff writer Cathleen Decker in Washington contributed to this story.