Washington — George Bush wants to make Election '88 a campaign of ideology - left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative. Michael Dukakis wants this campaign to be dominated by questions of ethics and competence - a contest based on personal qualities.
Mr. Bush will hammer Governor Dukakis hard on three broad issues: defense, crime, and taxes.
The vice-president hopes those issues will crystalize public opinion about the Massachusetts governor along ideological lines.
On the stump, the vice-president has begun attacking Dukakis with his toughest language yet. His ultimate goal: to pin the dreaded ``L'' word - liberal - on Dukakis's chest.
If voters ultimately see Dukakis as a tax-and-spend liberal who is weak on defense and soft on criminals, Bush strategists hope it will bring Southern whites, Northern blue-collar ethnics, and Western independents scurrying back to the Republican tent.
``This ought to be a campaign on issues,'' says Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign manager. ``There are vital differences on issues between these two candidates.''
Bush won't be pulling his punches. That's become clear in recent days as he tried out a number of tough lines against the governor. On taxes, Bush told a group of Republicans in Denver:
``Michael Dukakis imposed the biggest tax increase in the history of his state.... He has consistently fought his Legislature on tax cuts, obstructing and slowing them whenever possible.''
On crime, he told Republicans in Cincinnati: ``I support mandatory sentencing for drug dealers. My opponent vetoed it in Massachusetts. And I support the death penalty for drug kingpins. Mike Dukakis opposes the death penalty.''
On defense, he said in Corpus Christi, Texas: ``The Democratic nominee seems to have veered far outside [the] mainstream. His positions ... amount to a rejection of America's role as a world leader....''
Gallup pollster Andrew Kohut says Bush's best strategy will be to instill fear in the hearts of voters about what Dukakis might do in the White House.
Will Dukakis weaken American defense? Will he send taxes through the roof? Will he turn criminals loose on weekend passes?
Those are the concerns Bush wants to raise, as he did in Cincinnati where he talked about the Massachusetts furlough program.
``Let's get the facts straight,'' Bush said. ``Until March of this year, Massachusetts had the most liberal weekend release program in the nation, the only state program permitting inmates sentenced to life without parole to take unsupervised leave from prison grounds. A weekend pass for first-degree murderers. In no other state would a cold-blooded murderer like Willie Horton have been set free to terrorize innocent people.''
Voters may hear a lot about Willie Horton this fall. The Massachusetts inmate raped a woman and stabbed a man in Maryland after escaping during a furlough.
Borrowing a page from Ronald Reagan, Bush also is adamant about taxes. He's against any increases.
His aides think taxes and economic growth could work strongly for Bush. Mr. Atwater, speaking with reporters over breakfast the other day, says the Massachusetts economic situation this year ``has been in shambles.'' He accused Dukakis of mishandling his state budget, stumbling into a deficit, and being forced into a tax increase.
Bush counts on Americans to be so opposed to taxes that they'll even flinch at the idea of cracking down on tax evaders. Bush warns:
``Governor Dukakis ... unleashed the tax collectors on the people of Massachusetts, and now he wants to do the same to the rest of us. Instead of a chicken in every pot, he offers a tax collector in every kitchen.
``Let me say, we need an IRS, and people of course should pay their taxes. But having said that, I support a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which defines not what you owe the government, but what the government owes you in terms of fairness and fair play.''
Bush sees defense policy as a tempting target against Dukakis. He charges that Dukakis would leave America in such a weakened negotiating position that the Soviets would have little reason to make arms reductions.
Bush accuses Dukakis of using slogans, such as ``strong defense,'' without backing them up. ``It is not enough to say you are for a strong defense and at the same time pledge to eliminate nearly every new weapons system that would give those words substance.''
Bush adviser Robert Teeter says Dukakis's big lead in the polls reflects the natural advantage any Democratic candidate enjoys because of party registration. Democrats are more numerous.
That advantage will wane, Mr. Teeter suggests, as conservative and moderate Democrats look at the issues and begin moving to Bush.