THERE was surprise in many places (also jubilation among Democrats and anxiety among Republicans) when the news broke last week that Michael Dukakis was leading George Bush in the American presidential opinion polls by a wide margin. A New York Times/CBS poll that had been taken during the second week of May showed Governor Dukakis leading Vice-President Bush by 48 to 39 percent. The same poll taken in March had shown Mr. Bush leading, 46 to 45 percent. In a mere two months the Dukakis rating had thus jumped from a one-point deficit to a nine-point advantage.
Back when the March poll was taken, public attention was focused on the individual contests inside the respective Republican and Democratic Parties. Bob Dole was still a formidable Republican contender. Pat Robertson was still in the running. Not until the end of March was it certain that Bush would be the Republican nominee.
Over among the Democrats in mid-March, Albert Gore Jr., Paul Simon, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were still in the running. It took the New York primary to torpedo Senator Gore, and the Illinois primary to end Senator Simon's hopes. Meanwhile the strong Dukakis win in New York and Pennsylvania over Mr. Jackson ended serious doubt that Dukakis would be the Democratic leader.
Thus not until early May did the public at large settle down to a good look at just two men - Bush and Dukakis.
The result need not have been surprising. Once you forget about all the runners-up - Dole, Mr. Gore, Richard Gephardt, Mr. Robertson, Jack Kemp, and the rest - there is one obvious difference between the two survivors. One is a man who has spent the last 7 years sitting in on the councils of state and leaving no visible record of ever having had a hand in the decisionmaking process.
The other is a man who has been making decisions and taking up positions for most of 16 years. Bush has a splendid record of high positions in government from way back. But that was all before 1980.
What do we know about Bush today? We know that he has been a loyal vice-president to Ronald Reagan. But we do not know what he did to prove his usefulness to the President other than to give public support to Reagan policies. We do not know what role he played in the Iran-contra affair. We do not know whether he ever tried to stem the tide of growing national deficits.
During the years that Bush was being a loyal vice-president, Dukakis was running the state of Massachusetts. He was first elected governor in 1974. He lost out in 1978, spent four years teaching and learning at Harvard, came back as governor in 1982, and was reelected, easily, in 1986.
The contrast is inevitable. Vice-presidents are not allowed to be seen to be making decisions or influencing high policy. It is the occupational disadvantage of the office. Bush is the victim, not the cause, of the fact that he has an eight-year nonrecord of decisions to identify his public posture. There is a contrast between a man who has been living with the problem of government of these times and making decisions about them and a man who has been on the sidelines of the decision process.
This shows up, inevitably, in a secondary respect. Because Dukakis has been making decisions about problems of government, he sounds up to date. He is wrestling with a budget problem in Massachusetts right now. Can he balance his current budget? How will he do it? He is worried about drugs, about law enforcement, about AIDS, and doing things about these matters, he is up with the times.
Can Bush close the gap? Yes, of course, if between now and election day he can show that he is equally aware of the new problems of today and has fresh answers. But it is not going to be easy for him to break out of the pattern of his nonactive vice-presidential years while a brisk, busy Dukakis is making modern decisions about modern problems, every day.