Michael S. Dukakis' presidential campaign got a boost from the television networks Sunday, with both ABC and NBC television news programs showing a confident, upbeat candidate telling a cheering crowd in Bakersfield that he is, indeed, a liberal.
Dukakis got a second assist when both networks focused on a new Maryland GOP mailer showing separate photographs of him and Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a Maryland woman and assaulted her fiance while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison.
The controversial mailer, which asked if the two men comprised the Democrats' "pro-family team," was quickly disavowed by George Bush campaign officials. An angry Dukakis was shown demanding that Bush remove all copies of the mailer from circulation.
By contrast, both networks showed brief clips of Bush making a hurriedly planned campaign trip to Pennsylvania, fearful of forfeiting a day of news coverage to his Democratic rival. His failure to comment on the Maryland mailer was also noted.
The television coverage reflected a growing belief, shown primarily in Dukakis' private campaign polls, that he is beginning to close the gap with Bush in several key states, including California. Both networks stressed, however, that Bush continues to enjoy a big lead, with only eight days to go before the election.
On ABC, correspondent Sam Donaldson said that Dukakis' dramatic statement that he is a liberal "in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Jack Kennedy," showed a more buoyant side to the candidate and a new determination to pursue traditional Democratic voters.
During a shorter NBC segment, it was noted that Dukakis' polls have found encouraging signs among Democratic voters who left the party in droves to support President Reagan and had been considering voting for Bush. These so-called "Reagan Democrats" might yet support Dukakis because he seems more "accessible" to voters than Bush and has lately been waging a more populist economic campaign, the broadcast said.
Both networks showed Bush in Pennsylvania, meeting with the former Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal John Krol, and speaking over a microphone to a crowd of campaign workers.
Bush did not comment on the controversy over the controversial Maryland mailer. But the news shows carried responses from James A. Baker III, the vice president's campaign chairman.
Earlier, Baker disavowed the mailer during an appearance on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation." He said the flyer was "totally out of bounds, totally unauthorized . . ." but added that the Dukakis campaign was sending out inflammatory mailers of its own, which "say George Bush is nuts . . . a big squirrelly picture . . . and this is moving around in Democratic circles."