AT the Republican convention in New Orleans, party strategists, pollsters, and officials unremittingly explain why they plan to mount an attack on Michael Dukakis. They speak with surprising candor. It may or may not be negative campaigning, they say, but they claim it is essential to their strategy. Richard Wirthlin, President Reagan's pollster, describes Mr. Dukakis as ``stubborn ... inflexible ... not warm ... very cerebral.'' Fred Malek, GOP convention manager, says Dukakis ``doesn't have many friends.''
The stated goal is to compare the candidates on the issues. But under that guise, the ``issues'' may turn out to be personal attacks.
``Change'' is a catchword at this convention. George Bush represents change for ``peace, prosperity,'' Bush strategists say; Dukakis represents ``risk ... chaos.''
Americans are going to hear a lot more about Boston's dirty harbor, the Massachusetts prison furlough program, and the state's fiscal problems. Dukakis will be called soft on defense. The more ``liberal'' Dukakis can be painted, the more his support will erode, Bush strategists say.
The Democrats by no means have been the good guys in this race. The ``where was George?'' refrain from their convention reflected their own strategy of derision. And earlier presidential campaigns had their share of negativism: Remember ``racism and hate ... warmonger'' in 1980?
Some negative repartee is part of the game of presidential politics. Still, Americans should have some idea of the calculated analysis behind what they will be seeing in this campaign.
Mr. Bush's own ``negatives'' are notably high. Part of his problem is institutional: Playing second fiddle to a president tends to undercut the vice-president's image as an independent leader. Bush's personality is not as appealing as Mr. Reagan's to Democrats who voted Republican in 1980 and '84. During a long incumbency, downside events such as the Iran-contra affair and indictments of top officials take their toll.
Bush, too, has walked a tightrope between conservative and progressive positions, leaving the public confused on where he stands.
Finally, some party analysts contend that the conservative Republican cycle may be nearing its end. If so, Bush's problems may lie as much in the public's waning affinity for conservative values as in its personal evaluation of Bush.
Whatever the reasons for the much-documented unfavorable ratings Bush receives from the public, in theory they accumulate over time and are not quickly or easily shed. It is easier to build up an opponent's ``negatives'' than to erase one's own. ``The plus vote on Bush is mostly in place - some 40 percent,'' one Bush strategist says. ``To get to 50 percent, he's got to get people to vote against Dukakis. His challenge is not to win, but to make sure Dukakis comes in second.''
Negative campaigning has hardly been invented this week in New Orleans. But seldom have we heard it described with such candor and calculation.
One hardly thinks that explaining a cynical strategy will make it more acceptable to a public that wants its leaders to represent the best in American traditions. When the public catches on that a candidate is deliberately seeding negative notions - planting fears and doubts - its sense of fairness is offended and the aggressor pays a price, as happened to both Jimmy Carter and Reagan in 1980.