Bloomfield, N.J. — George Bush is wrapping himself in the American flag, and Michael Dukakis is seeing red. The Stars and Stripes, long a popular political backdrop, now has become the most potent and emotional symbol of the 1988 campaign.
Mr. Bush's constant reference to the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag has sent a strong message to voters. It is what political strategists call a ``hot button'' - a symbolic issue that stirs the feelings of voters.
But it's a tactic that Governor Dukakis charges has an air of 1950s-style McCarthyism.
In New Jersey on Tuesday, the vice-president sought to keep Old Glory at the forefront of his campaign with a tour of an American flag factory. He told employees of Aninn & Co. here: ``The flags you make fly over an America that today is stronger and more prosperous than at any time in its proud history.''
Bush evidently will keep pounding on the pledge issue as long as it helps his standing. Craig Fuller, Mr. Bush's chief of staff, says the pledge is a ``winner for us.''
While some critics disdain the pledge issue, it appears to have hurt Governor Dukakis, particularly with the kind of middle-American voters who backed Ronald Reagan in 1980 and '84.
During his first term as governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Dukakis - after receiving an advisory opinion from the state's highest court - vetoed a bill that would have required teachers to lead their classes in the pledge each day. The legislature overrode the veto overwhelmingly, but the state's attorney general ruled that the law was unenforceable.
In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Mr. Bush seized on the issue:
``Should public school teachers be required to lead our children in the Pledge of Allegiance? My opponent says no - but I say yes.''
Dukakis, failing to recognize the symbolic importance of the issue, sounded more like a law professor than a politician in his rebuttal:
``If the vice-president is saying he'd sign an unconstitutional bill, then in my judgment he's not fit to hold the office. It's a violation of the law, and he knows it.''
Neil Upmeyer, an analyst with the Gallup Organization, says Dukakis lost the exchange By a 3-to-1 margin, voters sided with Bush's position. Gallup surveys indicated that nearly one-third of the voters had a lowered opinion of Dukakis because of the issue.
Mr. Upmeyer says the pledge issue did two things to Dukakis. First, it kept him off balance and on the defensive. Instead of talking about his own programs, he had to fight off the Bush attack.
Second, it reinforced perceptions that Dukakis was a liberal and associated him with a variety of other liberal positions, such as his support for prison furloughs and opposition to many defense programs.
Analysts say the issue indicates that Dukakis's political instincts are not attuned to the public mood. ``Dukakis does not see how things play in the field. The telling thing was when he dealt with the pledge on the basis of constitutional law, which nobody understands,'' Upmeyer says.
Veteran Democratic Party insider Robert Strauss agrees. ``Dukakis made a major mistake - he got into an election debate on the subject. He captured the hearts of 17 lawyers and lost 3 million voters,'' Mr. Strauss says of the pledge controversy.
Bush hammers at the issue at almost every stop.
John Chubb, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says ``it may be demagoguery'' on Bush's part. ``I'm a little disturbed by that,'' he says.
But Mr. Chubb also says the issue is ``enormously revealing'' about the two candidates. ``Bush understands the politics of symbolism,'' he says; but there is also a ``serious issue'' involved with the pledge.
Dukakis explained his decision by noting that he was in obedience to the Massachusetts Supreme Court's advisory opinion.
``Bush is saying, `I'm willing to say that the courts are wrong. Public teachers should lead the pledge.'
``Dukakis is saying, `I bow before the courts.'''
But the courts are very unpopular with many Americans, Chubb observes. Thus Bush has framed the issue:
``If Dukakis really would be a strong, take-command president, why is he caving in to the courts, especially on an advisory opinion where the court was split.''
Seventy-five percent of the people think teachers should lead their classes in the pledge, Chubb observes, adding: ``You don't find many issues where a politician like Dukakis will take the 25-percent side. This is ... a motherhood issue, the kind politicians like, and for most of them, it's easy to know which side to be on.''
Bush's brief foray into New Jersey came as private polls were said to show that he is pulling into the lead here - a key state for both presidential candidates.