Election '88 shapes up as close fight. Inclination is to `throw the rascals out,' but Democrats could face racial fracture

Bush vs. Dukakis. Election '88 now emerges as a showdown between Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis - a race that's ``going to be very close,'' pollster Gordon Black predicts.

Governor Dukakis all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination for president this week with a New York victory that experts find both impressive and decisive. With 51 percent of the vote, Mr. Dukakis fared better than Jesse Jackson and Albert Gore Jr. combined.

Still ahead are a string of big primaries, from Pennsylvania to California. But political insiders are already looking toward the general election in November.

What they see is a marathon campaign in which Democrats would ordinarily have an edge.

``The Republicans have been in office for eight years, and in our system, that is a strength for the Democrats,'' says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar. ``The country tends to get bored with one party in office. We have a history of throwing the rascals out, even if they are doing a good job.''

Furthermore, Republicans have gotten some chinks in their armor over the past eight years, Mr. Hess says. One big chink: the ``sleaze factor.'' Another: the Iran-contra affair.

But Democrats also have reason for concern in the afterglow of Dukakis's victory. The party could still be threatened by a fracture along racial lines, unless Dukakis and his allies can satisfy the Rev. Mr. Jackson and his black and Hispanic supporters that they will play a major role in a Democratic White House.

Pollster Black says that even though the pendulum ordinarily would swing toward the Democrats this year, several issues are working in favor of the Republicans. And that will keep the race close.

``The mood of the country is fairly optimistic,'' Mr. Black says. ``Typically, the two most important issues are the economy and foreign policy. The economy is not really strong enough to be a potent Republican weapon, but not weak enough to be a potent Democratic weapon. It very slightly favors the GOP.''

On foreign policy: The number of voters willing to cut defense spending is at the highest level in eight years (which helps Democrats), and the public is cautious about foreign adventures (which also helps Democrats). But Black says the public also supports active negotiations with the Soviets, and that's a pro-Republican issue, because of the arms talks.

Peter Hart, a Democratic strategist, agrees that neither party has a built-in advantage. He compares 1988 to 1960 - one of the closest races ever.

A number of recent polls, including those by Black, show Dukakis out front against Mr. Bush. The most recent Black survey in early April gave Dukakis a 48-43 edge over the vice-president.

But pollsters say that doesn't mean Dukakis is the favorite. In fact, the poll numbers have jumped around, first showing one man ahead, then the other.

Black suggests that support for both men is so shallow that the outcome could be decided by a breaking news event that moves voters at the last moment. Only about 20 percent of the support for each man is solid, Black says. At this point in 1984, about 75 percent of Ronald Reagan's support was firm.

Harrison Hickman, a Democratic strategist, agrees with Black that last-minute developments could decide the race.

``Somebody is going to run a good campaign, and not make any mistakes, and that is what is likely to determine it,'' Mr. Hickman suggests.

William Feltus, a Republican who is president of an opinion research firm, says that ``Bush starts out with an advantage,'' despite the latest polls.

``People already know the bad things about Bush. From here on, Bush's favorable/unfavorable ratio will improve.''

But as people learn more about Dukakis, his image will begin to deteriorate, Mr. Feltus predicts.

``A lot of Americans don't think a whole lot about this until the World Series is over,'' he says. ``Those Americans have a bias in favor of change, they want to try the new brand. And they'll feel that way until they learn more about Dukakis. Then they'll see the new brand is not any better than the old brand, which they're already more comfortable with.''

Analysts say sharp policy differences could enliven the fall race, even though neither candidate is known as a fiery orator.

Dukakis, for example, opposes US policy in Central America, while Bush strongly supports it. Fireworks can also be expected on the Strategic Defense Initiative, defense spending, and ethics in government.

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