Washington — George Bush suddenly finds himself - like the Detroit Pistons - the embattled underdog. Falling behind in the polls, losing support in key states such as California, the vice-president is now fighting back. He has launched a full-court press against Michael Dukakis, who has emerged as the Magic Johnson of the Democratic Party.
Political veteran Robert Strauss says that unless Mr. Bush can damage Governor Dukakis quickly, the Democratic ticket could emerge from the party's national convention next month in Atlanta with a 25-point lead.
Republicans have ``got to hold that down,'' says Mr. Strauss, a former Democratic Party chairman. ``They know that George Bush is not the kind of fellow [who] can come back from way behind. He isn't Ronald Reagan, who can hit a long ball.''
Bush has responded with an ``onslaught of negative campaigning, and it's going to get worse,'' predicts Strauss, who spoke to reporters at a breakfast here Monday.
Republicans admit that Dukakis will emerge from the Atlanta convention with a lead - but they doubt it will be more than 15 points.
``History shows that leads like that can evaporate,'' says William Feltus, a pollster who has done work for Republican candidates.
``A 15-point lead is no big deal at that point in the campaign,'' Mr. Feltus says.
As Dukakis grapples with the Rev. Jesse Jackson over platform issues, Bush has hit the campaign trail after the California primary as if this were September.
Behind Bush's current strategy - which emphasizes negative campaigning - are numbers that some Republicans find disturbing.
Recent Gallup polls, for example, show that nearly half of Dukakis's strength comes from voters ``against Bush'' rather than ``for Dukakis.''
Larry Hugick, a Gallup analyst, notes that 40 percent of the public currently has a ``very unfavorable'' or ``mostly unfavorable'' opinion of Bush. ``That's a serious problem,'' Mr. Hugick says.
At the same time, Dukakis's unfavorable rating is a scant 15 percent - hardly enough to show up on the charts.
One reason: Few people know Dukakis, or what he stands for.
``There's a real opportunity for Bush to improve things,'' Hugick says.
In recent days, Bush has moved in three directions to narrow the gap with Dukakis.
First, he has tried to define Dukakis as a Northeastern liberal who favors tax-and-spend policies in the style of George McGovern.
Second, he has opened himself for interviews by the national press, which he had largely kept at bay in recent months.
Third, he has begun defining himself apart from Ronald Reagan - most recently in a speech at Danville, Va., where he announced that he favors stepped-up federal efforts to encourage minority business development. Bush hopes to double Mr. Reagan's 7 percent vote among blacks in 1984. In a close election, that could be crucial.
But Bush's main thrust is against Dukakis. In a series of speeches from Ontario, Calif., to Houston, Bush has ripped Dukakis as a ``defender of a flawed world view'' that has been shaped by ``the old inconsistencies of the left.''
Bush lambastes Dukakis for opposing most new major weapons systems such as the MX missile, the Midgetman missile, and the new carrier task force. And he charges that Dukakis would raise taxes if elected.
``Mudslinging,'' a Dukakis aide responds.
The Bush attacks, however, are clearly calculated. Pollsters report that nearly half the voters know so little about Dukakis that they could change their minds before election day. Bush needs to raise doubts about Dukakis before the opinions of those voters harden.
Right now, Dukakis is ``the new product - the new and improved version'' that Americans always love to try, Feltus says. ``Dukakis is like a new car - it's always better than your old car. It smells good for a while. But after a while, the air conditioner doesn't work, and the old problems appear. And that's what will happen with this campaign. Dukakis's unfavorable ratings will go up.''
Republicans think they already see that happening. Over the weekend, Dukakis buckled to demands by Mr. Jackson when he agreed to a platform plank that would brand South Africa as a terrorist state.
They expect Jackson to continue his demands on Dukakis and to nudge the governor further left, just as Dukakis tries to move to the center.
Democrat Strauss insists that Jackson won't make life hard for Dukakis. Observers at the Democratic platform hearings at Mackinac Island, Mich., over the weekend say Democrats are more unified than at any time in the past eight years.
Some Republicans call that wishful thinking.