Cincinnati — Republican leaders gathered in this Ohio city over the weekend to practice their rhetorical assault against Michael Dukakis, the presumed Democratic nominee. The occasion was the second of three GOP ``Unity '88'' meetings sponsored by the Republican National Committee. A similar meeting was held in Denver two weeks ago, and a third gathering will convene in Atlanta early next month.
``Americans ... do not believe as [Michael Dukakis] does,'' Sen. Bob Dole told the assembled GOP activists from 23 Midwestern and Northeastern states, ``that the bright morning of our strength and vigor has passed. They do not believe that it's nightfall in America.''
George Bush and his campaign officials delivered this message to the attending party faithful: Hunker down through the coming weeks of expected bad press and disappointing poll results, campaign ``like zealots'' through November, and then watch the American electorate beat a path to the GOP on election day.
Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the party chairman, outlined a three-part GOP strategy for November:
To draw a ``then-and-now'' comparison to remind voters of the high inflation and interest rates of the Carter years.
To highlight policy distinctions between the two parties on issues such as taxes and defense.
To establish clear and compelling directions in which Mr. Bush plans to take the country if elected.
Although speakers including Senator Dole and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig warned that they believed the election would be close, they said the best strategy is to point out differences between Vice-President Bush and the ``liberal'' Mike Dukakis.
Republicans will assail Mr. Dukakis on taxes, his support of a Massachusetts program that grants furloughs to convicted murderers, his opposition to the death penalty for drug kingpins, and his veto of a Massachusetts bill that required teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance.
GOP leaders think that Dukakis played into their hands last week by announcing increases in certain Massachusetts taxes. In order to raise an estimated $115 million to $120 million to help solve a state budget deficit, Governor Dukakis signed off on a 5 percent increase in the sales tax on cigarettes and revisions of the state income-tax code prompted by changes in the federal tax code.
``I am not going to raise your taxes, period,'' Bush told the cheering crowd. ``That's the difference - as plain as day - between us. Tax cuts versus tax hikes.''
Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, said the Democrats, to win back party members who voted for President Reagan, will attempt to obscure the differences between the candidates. Mr. Atwater told the crowd that the Dukakis campaign is trying to deflect damage by accusing Bush of negative campaigning. Unfazed, Bush will divide his campaign time between highlighting these differences and staking out his own issues.
``Let him criticize me as he has done for six months unfettered,'' Bush told the crowd. I [didn't want] to join the fray until the Democratic primary process was over, but I'm getting warmed up. ... I think I'm going to like this.''
``We want to be fair, we want to be precise,'' Bush said. ``You don't have to tear down someone's character who disagrees with you, but it is important that the American people know the difference on these issues.''
Bush also met with a group of 80 Republican women to discuss the so-called gender gap. Bush, who once supported the Equal Rights Amendment, now opposes the measure, but he says he supports women's rights. Part of the Republican strategy is to highlight the party's accomplishments in promoting world peace and a strong economy with declining unemployment. But with their emphasis on government belt tightening, it will be difficult for the Republicans to develop dramatic programs in areas such as child care and health care, issues of great importance to women.