• U.S.

The Grail of the Golden State

6 minute read
Laurence I. Barrett

The setting was a San Francisco TV studio, and the script called for a debate between Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson. But when it was Dukakis’ turn for a 60-sec. summary, his first words were “this fall.” He all but ignored his Democratic rival, barely mentioned next week’s California primary and instead concentrated his fire on George Bush. “Some people want to build missiles,” Dukakis declared. “I want to help build young minds.” From the U.S. Military Academy on the opposite coast, Bush belabored the Democrats’ “liberal elite” for failing to understand that “peace flows from strength.” Welcome to the general-election campaign, which is well under way even as the nominating season sputters to a suspense-free finale.

California was supposed to be different in 1988. Earlier contests were going to be so inconclusive that Golden State voters, whose primaries always come late in the season, would have unusual influence in choosing both nominees. Like many an ’88 scenario, that forecast foundered on the reefs of reality. Californians, along with voters in New Jersey, New Mexico and Montana, will anoint rather than select the nominees next week.

But Bush and Dukakis are getting more on the West Coast than a tan. The nation’s most populous state, California offers the single largest prize in November: 47 electoral votes. Raising the stakes further is the strong sense that the state could go either way this year, perhaps serving as the cornerstone of a Democratic victory in a close race. “It’s winnable,” says Jack Corrigan, a Dukakis strategist. “It’s target No. 1.” Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager, agrees: “It’s up for grabs.” The Bush team members are starting to argue that the Vice President can win without California, a sure indication of their fears.

Recent polls confirm a trend that first emerged in a TIME survey five weeks ago: nationally, Dukakis now leads Bush by 11 to 13 points. The San Francisco- based Field Institute last week gave the Massachusetts Governor a virtually identical 13-point margin in California. Even if that gap shrinks, it represents a remarkable opportunity for Dukakis in a state that Republicans have carried in all but one presidential election since 1952 (the exception was Lyndon Johnson in 1964).

Bush’s problem in California is like his problem nationwide: he has moved only inches out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow. Even when he detached himself from the White House’s feckless policy of trying to cajole Manuel Noriega out of Panama two weeks ago, the Vice President was hesitant and late. Meanwhile, he continues to be bruised by his association with unpopular Administration actions like last week’s veto of the trade bill, which contains a provision requiring employers to give 60 days’ notice before laying off workers.

Some of Bush’s advisers are urging him to be more assertive, but he has held back. The “aggressives” suffered a major reversal last week when Peter Teeley asked to be relieved of his duties as communications director. He complained that he was frozen out by two colleagues who generally reinforce Bush’s own cautious instincts, Chief of Staff Craig Fuller and Pollster Bob Teeter. The first visible fissure in an otherwise harmonious and efficient organization, the Teeley move underscored Bush’s failure to decide on an effective strategy. To compound the difficulties, Bush’s sometimes startling deficiencies as a campaigner have emerged in some recent California performances. In a talk to a group of upwardly mobile Latino high school students, he clumsily implied that forgoing college and settling for blue- collar jobs was fine. Said Bush: “We need the people who do the hard physical work in our society.”

Such ineptness has been costly. “In this state,” says one adviser, “Bush has been plummeting, and I’m not just talking about the polls. You can hear it among rank-and-file Republicans.” To reverse the slide, the Bush team will rely more heavily on the political organization of Governor George Deukmejian. The “real Duke,” as Republicans call their sober, taciturn Governor to distinguish him from Dukakis, is still mentioned as a possible running mate for Bush. But there is one major drawback to that scenario: if elected, Deukmejian would have to hand over the nation’s largest statehouse to a Democrat.

The Vice President’s camp professes confidence that Bush will do better once California voters are more familiar with him. Just as important, Dukakis’ image is also hazy. Reporters doing voter interviews are amused to discover that some citizens say they prefer “Dukis” or “Duksis” to Bush. So far Dukakis has managed to impress liberals as a liberal and moderates as a moderate. Bush argues that familiarity with Dukakis will breed voter contempt. “When I see one poll saying that two-thirds of the public think Dukakis is more conservative than I am, I say, ‘Hey, what in the world goes on here?’ I guarantee you nobody will say that when this campaign is over.”

The confusion is all the more curious because Dukakis has not been vague on a variety of litmus-test issues. In last week’s San Francisco debate, he restated his opposition to capital punishment, boasted about the comprehensive medical-insurance program enacted in Massachusetts six weeks ago and agreed with Jesse Jackson that the U.S. should get tougher with South Africa’s racist government. On most national-security questions, Dukakis sounds like the dove that he is.

The Democratic elimination contest, with Al Gore on the right and Paul Simon and Jackson on the left, helped Dukakis look like a moderate on most issues. Jackson reinforced the front runner’s middle-of-the-road image last week by quipping that Dukakis “has liberal dreams, but at this point a conservative set of numbers to pay for his dreams.” While the label “fiscal conservative” might seem opprobrious to Jackson, it is a compliment in many places, including California, the cradle of the 1970s tax revolt.

Dukakis’ most obvious strategic opening is to attack the Reagan Administration for its most obvious failings, including Iranscam and the Noriega fiasco. So far he has done that without appearing negative by assaulting Bush personally. A more difficult challenge for Dukakis will be to flesh out his vague stump speeches with more specifics. This means converting his pleasant-sounding concepts — such as a “real war on drugs” and “comprehensive day care” — to realistic programs complete with price tags. He also owes voters a credible explanation of how he will curb the federal deficit. If his follow-up sounds as expensive as his promises are expansive, Dukakis may alienate the moderate voters who put Reagan in the White House but are now skeptical about Bush.

As Dukakis and his staff thread that needle, his aides tinker with combinations of states that can produce the magic electoral-vote number of 270. Because most of the South, including Florida and Texas, looks tough for Dukakis, his tacticians are increasingly focusing on a Western strategy that starts with California, spreads up the coast to Oregon and Washington, and even reaches a few Republican bastions in the Rockies. Californians should be warned now: they will get plenty of attention even after next week’s primary ballots have been counted.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com