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Michael Dukakis: The precarious politics of `competence'

By Donald L. RheemStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 1988



Washington

EARLY in February 1987, Jerome Grossman, a prominent Boston Democrat, got a phone call from the governor. Michael Dukakis was thinking about running for president. Invited to Mr. Dukakis's home, Mr. Grossman prepared a memo outlining eight possible paths to the Democratic nomination, based on his experience in several presidential campaigns.

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``Are you trying to tell me something?'' Dukakis asked, reading the memo. ``You're trying to tell me that I don't fit any of the eight paths?''

``That determination is up to you to make,'' his guest replied.

Not long thereafter Grossman was sitting in his home watching the governor announce his candidacy on the evening news. The phone rang.

``Jerry, this is Mike Dukakis,'' the caller said. ``I know I don't fit any of your eight paths, but I'm going to create a ninth one.''

And so Michael Dukakis, a third-term governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, began his spectacular rise to become the Democratic Party's nominee for the presidency of the United States. His bid for the White House says a lot about Dukakis.

He has a reputation for being an efficient administrator, with a fine eye for detail and emerging skills as a compromiser. A very private man, Dukakis campaigns long and hard. He is by most accounts deeply committed to the concerns of average Americans, and is convinced that government can and should lend a helping hand.

``What we've learned about him from the campaign is what many folks knew before the campaign,'' says Ira Jackson, Dukakis's former tax chief, who has known the governor 25 years. Mr. Jackson uses words like steady, unflappable, and indefatigable to describe Dukakis.

``He has held down the governorship of a major industrial state ... run for president, maintained his sanity and good humor, kept his family together, and raised and spent $150 million,'' Jackson says. ``If you get a distance from it, it is a pretty awesome set of challenges.''

True, others say, but the point is not to survive. It's to win.

A Boston insider laments: ``On being competent, he deserves a lot of credit - but that won't get you elected president.''

Sources close to the governor say there were a number of factors that led Dukakis to run for the nomination.

The ``Massachusetts miracle'' - at that time the state's economic performance was a shining star - burnished his record as a skillful and innovative chief executive.

His popularity in the state was very high.

He had a close-knit political team and dedicated followers.

His heritage as the son of self-made immigrants was seen as a political plus.

Without New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, the Democratic field looked weak.

Fund raising would be simplified in a prosperous state, and would be further facilitated by Dukakis's roots in the Greek-American community and by his wife's Jewish background.

But even putting all these elements together, Grossman still couldn't find the so-called ninth path to the White House. ``It just wasn't salable,'' he thought at the time.

Rocky campaign trail

And indeed, Dukakis's path has been steep and rocky since the triumphant July night in Atlanta when he accepted his party's nomination.

Massachusetts is scrambling to stay out of red ink, and the budget problems have tarnished the governor's reputation for competence, even in his own state. Despite having plenty of money, his political operatives are being criticized for bungling the campaign. Dukakis's frequent reference to his Greek-immigrant heritage never quite caught on. Critics clamor for a campaign message, and political analysts say he lacks the warmth to embrace voters.

``The collapse of the campaign came suddenly, but the roots of it were there,'' a longtime Dukakis observer says.

With nearly two weeks until election day, Dukakis's campaign is by no means over. But many Democrats are acting as though they are attending a wake. With Dukakis's poll numbers stubbornly lagging behind George Bush's, and with what appears to be an even wider deficit in the Electoral College tally, political friends and foes alike are searching for clues to what went wrong.