Washington — If today's polling preferences were ballots in the box, George Bush would lose the 1988 election. Mr. Bush has developed an aggressive plan to close the polling gap, and Democrats are already calling it negative campaigning. The vice-president and a host of GOP ``surrogates'' have begun to let loose a barrage of information about Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, his administration, and his past and present policy positions. Their selective search through Mr. Dukakis's public life is designed to give the voters the same impression of the governor as that held by GOP regulars - a tax-and-spend liberal who is soft on defense and crime.
Bush says he has no intention of running a negative campaign, but he is determined to highlight the distinctions between himself and his Democratic rival.
The vice-president says he would not have vetoed a bill requiring Massachusetts teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance, as Mr. Dukakis did. Nor would Bush have raised state taxes, or have allowed convicted murderers out on furlough to go see a movie.
The list of ``comparisons'' goes on, much to the consternation of Dukakis campaign officials, who say Bush's tactics are the start of a negative run for the White House.
But the Bush camp rejects the criticism. ``Any time the vice-president makes a comparative speech,'' says Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager, ``the Dukakis campaign accuses us of dirty campaigning. That's ludicrous.''
``It's obvious that the Dukakis crowd is trying to intimidate us out of talking about the differences between the two candidates,'' Mr. Atwater told a gathering of Republicans over the weekend.
One of the key players in the Bush strategy is outgoing Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire. His job is to trash the notion that Dukakis presided over a miraculous turnaround of the Massachusetts economy.
``Mike Dukakis's `Massachusetts miracle' is a Massachusetts mirage,'' Governor Sununu tells delighted Republican audiences. He lists a ream of statistics showing the commonwealth at or near the bottom of New England states in such areas as growth in total employment, trade and exports, and in service and manufacturing jobs.
``If the job rate of growth of the country were the same as the job rate of growth of Massachusetts,'' Mr. Sununu says, ``we would have 10 million fewer jobs in this country. Mike Dukakis has threatened to do to America what he did to Massachusetts.''
Other Republicans will also take up the cudgel against Dukakis's alleged shortcomings, saving Mr. Bush the unsavory task of being seen as his own ``hatchet man.''
``Surrogates are going to be more important in this campaign than they have ever been in a presidential campaign,'' Atwater says. ``We have got to get everyone in the party out with the message this year. Be vigilantes,'' he tells the party faithful, ``get out there and tell the truth about these two candidates.''
Bush says it hasn't been easy sitting through months of verbal bashing from Dukakis and Jesse Jackson. While he acknowledged that he would have to take some negative hits for his stint in the Reagan administration, he rankled at the implication that ethical problems would spill over into his campaign.
``The things I have run in my life have been clean,'' the vice-president told a crowd of 1,100 supporters last weekend. ``Nobody has ever ... leveled any charge against me in terms of conflict of interest or sleaze or anything of that nature.''
``I heard these charges [by Dukakis and the Rev. Mr. Jackson] trying to link me in to [Panama strong man Manuel Antonio] Noriega in some way. ... What is their evidence? ... If Dukakis has some allegations and wants to confront me with the charge ... do it directly to my eye,'' Bush told the cheering crowd.
Bush wants to hammer on the theme of no new taxes, and promises never to raise them. Republicans see Dukakis as vulnerable on the issue, since he recently announced a 5 percent sales tax on cigarettes in Massachusetts.
A Democratic Party leader demurs, however. ``I don't think that George Bush's claim is responsible,'' Democratic National Committee chairman Paul Kirk said yesterday at a breakfast meeting with reporters.
``The party that came to office claiming they would balance the budget by 1983 and ran that [deficit] up to $220 billion on promises of fiscal responsibility [can't] then turn around and say no revenue enhancement. I don't think it is credible,'' Mr. Kirk said.
Atwater, the Bush campaign manager, says the American people can't be fooled on this issue. ``Any guy that's going to raise taxes in the middle of a campaign for president, what in the world do you think he is going to do after he is elected?''
``That's the single best issue we've got in this election,'' Atwater says. ``I've yet to meet a voter who says he wants a tax increase.''