Halfway through the Democratic primaries, Michael Dukakis remains more a ``front-walker'' than a front-runner. Every time Mr. Dukakis picks up the pace, as in New Hampshire and Florida, one of his rivals slows him back down to a discouraging shuffle.
After 32 primaries and caucuses, which have chosen about 50 percent of the elected delegates, the Massachusetts governor has only one-fourth of the votes he needs for the presidential nomination.
Within the last 10 days: Paul Simon embarrassed Dukakis in Illinois; Jesse Jackson trounced him in South Carolina (where Dukakis finished fourth); and Richard Gephardt took most of the delegates in South Dakota.
The governor needs to increase his stride - and quickly. Three opportunities appear at hand.
Dukakis is leading in polls for Saturday's pivotal Michigan caucuses. Victory there would set the stage for a strong return to New England three days later for the Connecticut primary. Then the race moves out to Wisconsin on April 5.
A three-state sweep would increase pressure on other candidates, particularly Senator Simon and Congressman Gephardt, to leave the race.
The exit of Simon, a liberal, would particularly help Dukakis amass higher delegate totals in some major remaining states, such as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California. Both men compete for much the same constituency of voters.
Dukakis's problems this spring, however, could presage a difficult summer for Democrats, and party weakness in the fall.
So far, Dukakis has been unable to expand his support very far beyond a traditional core of Eastern Democratic voters. He came in first in Kansas over the weekend, but that was in caucuses, not a primary. He hasn't caught on with blue-collar voters, a vital group for Democrats.
Robert Morgan, a former US senator from North Carolina, says that Dukakis's ties to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will make him tough to sell in the South. (Dukakis campaigned side-by-side with Mr. Kennedy in Michigan last week.)
Mr. Morgan, director of the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation, recalls his own defeat several years ago against John East, a conservative Republican. The GOP won by inaccurately linking Morgan to Kennedy. Morgan says the Massachusetts-Kennedy connection can be devastating in the South. He says that with a Bay State liberal at the top of the ticket, ``We're in bad shape down here.''
Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta pollster, says of Dukakis in the South:
``He will get the vast majority of the black vote, by default, if he is the party nominee. He'll also get `his' vote of educated liberals. And he'll get `yellow-dog' Democrats,'' as diehard Democrats are called.
Mr. Darden notes that in 1984, Walter Mondale got only 40 percent of the vote in Georgia, 38 percent in Alabama, 35 percent in Florida. ``That's no race at all,'' though Dukakis should do somewhat better, Darden predicts.
Dukakis's problems are similar to those being experienced by his rivals. They are all having trouble expanding beyond their natural bases of support.
ABC News exit polls tell the story. On Super Tuesday, Dukakis did well in Texas and Florida, but only by running strongly with pockets of voters, such as transplanted New Englanders living along Florida's Gold Coast. His Texas strength was rooted in his support from the Hispanic community, where he got 60 percent of the vote (Dukakis speaks Spanish).
But the critical voters that Democrats need this fall are ``swing Democrats'' and independents. Albert Gore Jr. trounced Dukakis among swing Democrats 37 percent to 25 percent, and among independents by 32 to 27 on Super Tuesday. Dukakis's strength was rooted in ``Mondale Democrats.''
Two factors are hurting Dukakis and his foes, analysts say. First, none of them, except Mr. Jackson, is well known. That makes it hard for them to reach beyond their home regions.
The second is a lack of a broad message which can bring together disparate groups. Dukakis's ``Massachusetts miracle'' theme hasn't done the job.
Democratic race: the delegate count DEMOCRATS Dukakis 526.50 Jackson 508.55 Gore 362.80 Simon 171.50 Gephardt 154 Uncommitted 343.65 Needed to nominate: 2,082 Total delegate votes: 4,162 Chosen thus far: 2,067 Still to be chosen: 2,095 Source: Associated Press