For Dukakis, election math grows tight

Michael Dukakis, like the Oakland A's, is plotting his comeback. As Election '88 goes into its final innings, Mr. Dukakis is like a batter with two strikes facing Dodger ace Orel Hershiser. The governor is digging in at the plate, but he has only one strike to go.

``We know we're an underdog, but we're fighting back,'' says Mark Gearan, Dukakis's national-headquarters press secretary.

The Dukakis team has few good options left - and they know it. The sense of urgency is felt right up to the top.

``These three weeks will be three of the most important weeks in American history,'' Governor Dukakis says.

``The Republicans want to put you to sleep,'' he told supporters in Boston. ``They're already celebrating. ... But I've got news for those Republicans. We're going to be the ones celebrating on election night.''

Dukakis hopes to turn the race around with a sharpened political message and a finely honed campaign strategy.

One of the most attractive campaign tactics left to Dukakis may be what pollster Mervin Field calls the 18-state scenario. By pouring his resources into a last-ditch effort in 18 states, Dukakis may eke out the required 270 electoral votes, Mr. Field says.

The scenario would go like this:

First, try to lock up 12 smaller states where Dukakis either is ahead, or remains competitive. Among the states that could be targeted are Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maryland, and West Virginia, plus the District of Columbia.

Second, make an all-out effort in six megastates: California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan.

Together, those 18 states could nudge Dukakis over the top in the Electoral College, with just a few votes to spare.

Mr. Gearan denies that Dukakis has adopted an 18-state strategy, despite news reports that the governor is moving in that direction. It is ``only one scenario among many'' that are available to the governor, Gearan says.

But with only three weeks remaining, Gearan concedes that Dukakis is redeploying his forces to the most promising areas.

The South and the Rocky Mountain states, for example, look less encouraging than two months ago. Southern states like Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, and South Carolina are solidly in the Bush column.

So Dukakis is shifting forces from Florida, for example, into states where he still seems competitive, such as Georgia and Louisiana. Critics say that should have happened weeks ago.

Dukakis also remains hopeful in Texas. And he will continue fighting for North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Colorado, New Jersey, Montana, North and South Dakota, and New Mexico.

But the governor's most critical problem, according to political experts, is his message, not the deployment of his manpower. His themes, which are complex and cerebral, don't excite voters. He's now trying to sharpen his message to give it a cutting edge.

In the closing days, Gearan says, the message will have two parts.

First, it will tell voters that under President Dukakis, America will be a very different country. He will work for broad changes in domestic policy, such as health care, and in Pentagon reform and defense priorities.

Second, it will tell voters that this election is not about right and left, but about right and wrong. To the enthusiastic backers gathered in Boston's Faneuil Hall Sunday, the candidate said that President Dukakis, faced with ethical issues, will know when to say: ``This is wrong.'' By his record, Vice-President George Bush has shown he will not do that, Dukakis will charge.

Dukakis added: ``I may not express my feelings as eloquently as some. But does anyone doubt what I would have said if I was in the room when they made those decisions to sell arms to the ayatollah, to put Noriega on the payroll, to veto civil rights and women's rights, or to choose people like Dan Quayle, Ed Meese, James Watt, and Robert Bork?''

This election is about ``passion and principle,'' and Bush fails those tests, Dukakis says.

Meanwhile, Dukakis is stepping up his TV ad campaign. On TV, the governor will strike a positive note, sharing his vision of America.

But on the stump, Dukakis will pound hard on the vice-president. He said in Boston:

``Mr. Bush says everything's fine; not to worry; this is as good as it gets. He talks about `a thousand points of light'; he talks about `a kinder, gentler nation.'

``But his record sends a very different message. His record tells our industrial heartland: `Let it rust.' His record tells rural America: `The fewer family farmers, the better.' ... His record tells middle-class families: `The glory days are over.'''

Dukakis has 21 days to convince America.

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