Washington — The American West could be Michael Dukakis's doorway to the White House. Significant changes in Western attitudes are hurting George Bush and offering Democrats an opportunity to break the Republican's eight-year grip on the presidency.
Vice-President Bush is finding it difficult to win support from independent Westerners, who were once attracted to the anti-elitist rhetoric and anti-Washington policies of Ronald Reagan.
These are some of the conclusions of a new, nationwide study by the Gallup Organization for the Times-Mirror press group.
The findings are sobering for Republicans, for they indicate that tried-and-true GOP states in the West might not be in Mr. Bush's corral on election day.
Robert Teeter, Bush's campaign pollster, disputes the notion, however, that the survey means Mr. Dukakis has a strong electoral advantage.
Once the polls tighten after the Republican National Convention later this month, many traditional GOP states, such as those in the Rocky Mountains, will move back into the Bush column, Mr. Teeter insists.
Gallup, which conducted an unusually large number (8,421) of in-person interviews during May, June, and July, found several important developments in the West.
Traditionally, Western voters are more anti-government than those in the rest of the nation. But that has changed in a way that could aid Dukakis.
Westerners told Gallup that they now favor government action on social issues even more strongly than voters in other parts of the country.
For example, they support national health insurance, help for the homeless, and free health care for the needy, Gallup reports.
There is also a pervasive air of dissatisfaction in the West with the way things are going in the United States. Even though they are content with their personal financial futures, Westerners say they are unhappy with the general course of the nation.
Andrew Kohut, president of Gallup, says Bush's problems in the West are particularly evident with a group of voters he calls the ``disaffecteds.'' They are unhappy with government institutions and want change. Many are independent, but ordinarily lean toward the GOP. Reagan got 80 percent of their votes in 1984.
This year, only 40 percent are backing Bush. The group still wants change, but most say that Dukakis is the man to do it. By a 46-to-26 margin, Western voters call Democrats the party of change.
Surprisingly, the survey found that ordinary regional differences were not apparent when Bush and Dukakis were matched head to head.
Nationwide, Gallup found that Dukakis led Bush by 51 percent to 40 percent. The greatest regional difference was found in the South, where Dukakis led only 47 to 44. Elsewhere, the figures were close to the national average, with the Rocky Mountains at 51 to 39, the Pacific Coast at 51 to 40, the Southwest at 51 to 40, New England (Dukakis's home turf) at 54 to 34, the Midwest farm states at 52 to 36, Midwest industrial states at 52 to 39, and Mid-Atlantic states at 55 to 36.
The survey also found that large numbers of ``Reagan Democrats'' among blue-collar ethnics and Southern whites are returning to their former party.
Mr. Kohut says those Democrats ``fell off the bandwagon'' for Reagan and Bush when it was disclosed that the Reagan White House sold arms to Iran - and they've never gotten back on.
Reagan Democrats, along with many independents, voted for the President in 1984 because they thought he was not like ordinary politicians. He had their trust. They believed him when he said he was tough. The Iran arms deal soured them on Reagan and the Republicans, and Bush suffers as a result.
``Bush's problem is that he comes into the national spotlight at a bad moment for the Republican Party,'' Kohut explains.
Kohut suggests that it will be hard for Bush to win these voters back directly. So Kohut suggests that Bush must do it indirectly, by moving them away from Dukakis - by emphasizing Dukakis's weaknesses on issues like defense.
Lee Atwater, campaign manager for Bush, demonstrated that approach Thursday when he told a breakfast meeting of reporters that Dukakis ``has never supported any kind of strategic defense system - period.''
On changes taking place in Western attitudes, the study concludes:
``The Western region of the US now rivals the East as the region most supportive of an activist governmental role on social issues.''
Although the West spawned the conservativism of both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, there may be a ``sea change'' in thinking now taking place in the West, the study says.