Hopefuls scramble for a place on crowded media calendar. Viewers have had Olympics, sports, a hurricane, and, oh yes, politics

Days went by. No one was exactly sure when the final presidential debate would be held this week - Thursday or Friday. The reason: It all depended on the big-league baseball playoffs. It's been that kind of year for the White House candidates. Sometimes they feel as if they are playing second fiddle to the baseball playoffs, the World Series, the Olympics, giant hurricanes, space shuttles, pro football, and Kremlin shake-ups. Voters are unusually distracted.

For Michael Dukakis, trailing in the race, that's been bad news. He needs those headlines and those invaluable minutes on the national TV shows.

Instead, Tom Brokaw takes NBC Nightly News to Seoul for the Olympics, leading his telecasts with athletic hopefuls rather than political ones. Or a mammoth hurricane puffs in from the Caribbean and takes over page one for most of a week. Or Mikhail Gorbachev decides to play musical chairs in Moscow.

Even worse was the space shuttle. Teary-eyed Americans watched it blast into space, then make a perfect landing in California. And there was George Bush to greet the astronauts, basking in the reflected glory of America's return to space.

Every four years, presidential campaigns have to compete for Americans' attention. But the experts say 1988 is worse than usual. The Olympics were later than before, and cut directly into the fall campaign. One big news event has piled atop another.

Political veteran Horace Busby blames the politicians, particularly Dukakis, for failing to muscle their way into news space. ``Dukakis did not mount an effort that could stand up against anything,'' Mr. Busby says. ``If you had a very exciting presidential candidate who really was feeding out something the public was eager to hear, all those other events would not put Dukakis off page one.''

Busby says Bush did better. ``No one says [Hurricane] Gilbert pushed Bush out of the news, or that the Olympics did.''

Mr. Bush's vigorous attacks, and his aggressive strategy, captured news space against difficult odds during September. The vice-president sensed that Americans were ready to demonstrate their pride in the country again, especially after the shuttle success.

``People were feeling good, and Bush was with that. The Dukakis campaign just does not pick up on that beat at all,'' Busby says.

Political science Prof. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia says that the news clutter this fall could have helped Dukakis if he were ahead:

``If the Dukakis message had gotten out early, before all these events, he would have benefitted. He allowed Bush a full month of attacks that were unanswered. He frittered away his lead.''

George Grayson, an analyst at the College of William and Mary, says it is ``nothing new'' that politicians have to fight for news coverage.

``But what is incrementally different this year is, first, you have the double whammy of Olympics, the baseball windup, shuttle, hurricane - it's rare that you have so much competition.

``But, second, it is also a function of there being no exciting candidates in the race this year. There's no one charismatic. So it is a lot easier, and more tempting, to watch [New York Mets player] Darryl Strawberry rather than a technocratic governor of Massachusetts or a bumbling vice-president....''

But Dukakis's prospects may be improving - all because of baseball. The four-game sweep by the Oakland Athletics pushed the Boston Red Sox out of the championship series quicker than expected. That allows the TV broadcast of the presidential debate to proceed at 9 p.m. (Eastern time) Thursday.

The Thursday audience usually is substantially larger than Friday, known around the TV industry as baby-sitters' night.

Dukakis needs a breakthrough in tonight's final debate to move ahead in this campaign. To get that breakthrough, he hopes for the largest possible audience. And for once, with the loss of his hometown Red Sox, something went his way.

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