Washington — Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden makes a blunt prediction about the 1988 presidential campaign. ``It's over,'' he says.
Unless George Bush makes an incredible blunder, the vice-president has ``locked up'' the White House for the GOP for another four years, Mr. Darden asserts.
Interviews with a half-dozen political experts around the country paint a universally bleak picture for Michael Dukakis and his embattled Democrats.
Only two months ago, Governor Dukakis was sporting a double-digit lead in the polls, and the party was anticipating victory. But experts observe that the Democratic ticket now is being pounded by several overpowering factors:
Peace and prosperity, always a tough-to-beat combination.
Ideological issues like crime where Mr. Bush has stolen the march on Dukakis.
Sharp, negative campaigning that has thrown Dukakis on the defensive.
Lack of a crisp, coherent message from Democrats.
Bush's more ``likable'' personality.
Thomas E. Cronin, author of the nation's leading political science textbook, ``Government by the People,'' says Bush appears headed for a solid victory on Nov. 8. Dr. Cronin predicts Bush could win by a 54-to-46 margin and pick up 330-to-340 electoral votes. Needed for election: 270. (How voters feel, Pages 3 and 6.)
``The fat lady has begun to sing,'' says analyst Horace Busby, echoing the old sports/opera saying that ``It's not over until....''
Mervin Field, a California pollster, says: ``Dukakis people are certainly looking at last-ditch possibilities, but the terrain is not promising.''
Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess says that with his lead, Bush now could afford to shift resources to try to win additional Senate seats for the GOP.
Analysts say Thursday's final presidential debate was Dukakis's big chance to make the race close. They say the governor's performance was good - but not good enough. A summary of the experts' views:
Claibourne Darden. The critical issues are breaking Bush's way. His views are closer to the American public on defense, patriotism, crime, taxes, and big government. Dukakis comes out ahead with the public only on abortion.
Darden says Dukakis has failed to reach out sufficiently to white Southerners. He points to Dukakis's praise of Earl Warren in the debate. The former Supreme Court chief justice Chief was anathema to many white Southerners.
``Can you imagine a grown-up, running for president, who needs some Southern states to add to his base in the Northeast ... making a hero out of Earl Warren?''
Dukakis's stubborn pursuit of his own agenda reminds Darden of a lyric he was taught while learning the rules of boating:
``This is the story of Michael O'Day, who died maintaining his right-of way; He was right; He was dead right.''
Says Darden: ``That seems to be the story of ... Dukakis: `You're right if you agree with me.'''
Larry Sabato. Bush has solidified his lead and now must merely avoid a major gaffe or scandal during the final three weeks, says Dr. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Sabato observes that three things are working for Bush: the combination of peace and prosperity, his own likability, and his ideological stance, which is closer than Dukakis's to the public. ``That is the whole election in a nutshell,'' he says.
In last week's debate, Dukakis needed a knock out, Sabato says. But he didn't even get a knock down.
Horace Busby. ``It's all over,'' says the publisher of ``The Busby Papers.'' ``Actually, maybe it never really got started.
Mr. Busby notes that in July, Dukakis had the strongest poll position of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But it didn't last.
Two factors most hurt Dukakis, in Busby's view. First, there is what Busby terms the ``electoral lock.'' In four of the past five elections, 36 states have gone Republican. Democrats can't seem to break that cycle.
Second, ``personal chemistry'' seems to be helping Bush with voters, while hurting Dukakis. The Democrat made no major personal blunders, but simply failed to click with the voters, he says.
``Almost 100 million people are advancing on the polls at this point. You cannot, with just a clever slogan, change the direction they are going at the last moment.''
Stephen Hess. ``Public opinion is pretty fixed now. ... There's not much Dukakis can do. He will probably toughen his TV ads. But his top people are probably bone tired by now. They cannot make a sea change at this date.''
Mr. Hess says Dukakis apparently tried to alter his strategy in the debate to project a different image, but ``he couldn't.'' Bush now will probably go to higher ground and speak about his vision of a gentler nation.
During these final days, Bush has an opportunity to set out some sort of mandate, talk about what he will do in the first 100 days, be more precise.
``It probably won't happen, but it would be useful,'' says the Brookings scholar. ``That was the failure of '84, failure to set a mandate.''
Thomas E. Cronin. Everything is going Bush's way, says Dr. Cronin. The INF Treaty, the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, peace talks between Iraq and Iran - ``things could not be breaking more fortuitously.''
Good times also are helping. ``Democrats do well when the unemployment rate is high,'' the professor says, ``but right now the Democrats cannot even nibble at the issue. It looks like whining if they look at high unemployment in West Virginia.''
Another plus: Ronald Reagan's high ratings. Cronin notes that Mr. Reagan's current popularity, near 60 percent favorable, is more than twice the rating of Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon at the end of their service. As Reagan soars, so does Bush.
Mervin Field. Dukakis's best hope is to pull back and use a 20-state strategy, or even an 18-state strategy, Mr. Field says. By focusing on the largest states, Dukakis might pull off an upset by winning in the Electoral College, even if he loses the popular vote.
But it will be tough. He would have to take New York State, California, and all but a couple of the other big states. Bush has a huge lead in Florida and also is strong in Texas, which sharply narrows Dukakis's options.
The problem for Dukakis: ``The public now feels it has drawn a bead on Dukakis. They know him. They are not antipathetic. He is just not winning the hearts and minds of the public.''