Robert Dole's message in Illinois is blunt: He can beat the Democrats in November, but George Bush might not. As Senator Dole struggles to save his faltering presidential bid in Tuesday's primary here, his advisers say the ``electability'' issue is the strongest argument going for him.
``I think we ought to nominate a winner, not a loser,'' Mr. Dole tells voters. He says Mr. Bush could ``Mondale-ize'' the Republican Party, a reference to the former Democratic vice-president who lost all but one state in 1984. (Democrats in Illinois, Page 3.)
Mark Schroeder, Dole's executive director in Illinois, warns that if the GOP loses the White House, Democrats will roll back the gains Ronald Reagan won.
But the outlook for Dole is bleak. A Chicago Tribune poll on Sunday shows Bush leading Dole here 62 percent to 28 percent.
Underlying Dole's electability argument are studies showing him more popular than Bush with Democrats and independents. Republicans, a minority party, need Democratic votes to hold the White House.
So a recent Scripps-Howard survey of voters in both parties in 14 Southern and border states could be significant. It found Bush edging out Democrat Michael Dukakis by only 45 percent to 44 percent. In the same poll, Dole whips Governor Dukakis handily, 45 to 36.
The results are even more dramatic outside the South. A California poll last month found Dukakis leading Bush 52 to 43. But in the same poll, Dole turned it around and defeated Dukakis 45 to 43.
Then why is Dole losing his race for the Republican nomination? Why could Illinois be his last chance to revive his campaign? Dole aides explain it two ways:
First, Bush has wrapped himself so tightly in the Reagan mantle that Dole cannot tear it from him. ``I can beat George Bush, but I can't beat Ronald Reagan,'' explains Dole.
Second, Bush is simply more popular among Republican regulars.
Dole argues that Republicans could lose the White House without a candidate who can reach beyond the party's Reaganites.
And Dole says he's the one who can get non-Republican votes. Proof: In a California poll last month, Dole beat Bush 51 to 39 among Democratic voters. The senator is well positioned to get those Democratic cross-over votes the GOP needs, his aides say.
Mervin Field, who conducted the California polls, says there is an element of truth in Dole's arguments. There's no doubt that Bush has suffered from a ``stature gap'' that hurts him with some voters, Mr. Field says.
But Field says the most recent polling data indicate that Bush's 16-state victory on Super Tuesday is winning new respect for the vice-president. ``People are coming around grudgingly to Bush,'' he says, although ``Bush does have weaknesses.''
Specifically, many voters ``do not see Bush as a very strong person. There are also a very significant number of negative impressions about his personality. ... [Unlike President Reagan] Bush's gaffes get a lot of publicity [because] of the view that this is not the strongest candidate.''
But John Chubb, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, disputes Dole's claim that he is more electable. ``The case for Dole is a case being made on paper,'' Dr. Chubb says. ``He says he's a strong leader, someone who can appeal more to independents and Democrats. But there is scant polling evidence to show it.''
The fact is, ``Bush is flat out popular,'' says Chubb. And ``if the Democrats nominate someone who is too liberal, they will go down in flames like they usually do.''
Bush and Dole know that if the GOP is to win next fall, one of the most critical groups is Southern ``swing Democrats'' - those who supported Reagan in 1984.
ABC News exit polls show that of all those who voted in the Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday (mostly in the South), 37 percent would never consider voting for Bush, 22 percent would never vote for Dole.
At the Monitor's request, ABC looked one step further, and determined how many ``swing Democrats'' would refuse to vote for Bush. There the total was only 6 percent - indicating that Bush has nearly the Southern potential that Reagan achieved in 1984.
Although Dole might be even stronger, Bush should be a formidable opponent for the Democrats, experts say.