Michael Dukakis has nearly locked up the Democratic presidential nomination while deftly avoiding the ``special interest'' label that handicapped some of the party's candidates in the past. Governor Dukakis, heavily favored in tomorrow's California primary, has won wide support from traditional Democratic voter groups such as Hispanics and labor union members. But he has maintained an air of independence from such groups, even when challenged by highly vocal interests, political experts point out. All this could be a major plus this fall against Republican George Bush. Four years ago, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale was politically wounded by the special-interest charge.
A number of political analysts say several factors are helping Mr. Dukakis maintain the appearance that he is his own man. The most obvious is organized labor's reversal of its 1984 strategy. In the current primary season, major unions have not endorsed any presidential candidate. Four years ago, unionists were stung by charges that their early endorsement of Mr. Mondale hurt the Democratic Party's chances, especially in the South.
Union officials deny that they purposefully avoided endorsements this year, explaining that no candidate this time had overwhelming support with the rank and file. So no endorsements will be made until after this summer's conventions. But some admit that the lack of labor endorsement has probably been a boost for Dukakis with middle-of-the-road and conservative voters.
Another helpful move came several months ago when party leaders decided to head off divisive fights over the Democratic platform. Such battles have hurt the party's nominee in previous campaigns. Earlier platforms became catch-alls for interest groups eager to pursue their own causes. But this year a number of major organizations with close Democratic ties are cooperating with efforts by the party's national chairman, Paul Kirk, to streamline the platform.
Meanwhile, Dukakis has scrupulously avoided kowtowing to vehement demands by various groups, such as homosexuals. In the California campaign, the governor has been jeered by gay activists angry about his stand on foster care. Despite such pressure, the governor stood by his position that traditional couples should be preferred over homosexual couples when the government is placing children in foster homes.
Political experts say Dukakis's staunch stand on the foster care issue is smart politics. It bolsters his reputation with conservatives and moderates, they explain, and probably has not hurt him seriously with most voters in the gay community.
``You can never give them enough,'' says William Coblentz, a Democratic Party leader in San Francisco.
Another boost for Dukakis: No major politician is charging him with special-interest ties. In the 1984 primary campaign, Gary Hart leveled that charge over and over against Mondale, giving the accusation credibility.
John Emerson, a senior adviser to Dukakis in California, thinks many party activists have learned their lesson. Mr. Emerson says that during the Mondale campaign four years ago leaders of special-interest groups acted with arrogance, insisting on absolute purity on issues. Candidates who didn't agree on every item were ``bashed,'' he says.
But Ronald Reagan's crushing defeat of Mondale destroyed that arrogance, Emerson says. Political purists in 1984 became political pragmatists in 1988. Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, agrees. ``There's a new sophistication on the part of these groups,'' he says.
``The conventional wisdom is that Mondale was trapped into becoming a special-interest candidate in 1984,'' Mr. Hess says. ``It was not just Dukakis who avoided that label this time. It was the big `no-no' this year - something all the candidates avoided.'' Analysts say Dukakis is also helped by the current tone of the campaign. On one side, he has Jesse Jackson, sounding very liberal and making Dukakis look moderate by comparison.
On the other side he has Vice-President Bush, charging Dukakis with being a left-winger. That helps Dukakis's image with his party's own left wing.
California pollster Mervin Field finds Dukakis's strength in the state steadily growing with all major voter groups except blacks, who are mostly for Jesse Jackson. Mr. Field says his studies suggest that some candidates, both Republican and Democratic, are overly fearful of so-called special interests.
Groups such as the gay community in San Francisco are not homogeneous, Field says. For example, some homosexuals are very conservative and favor Reagan-style policies. Standing up against demands that could undermine their political positions is good politics for both Republicans and Democrats, says Field.
Some observers say that the press largely ignores special-interest activity by Republicans. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which studies press coverage, recently criticized reporting of the special-interest issue, asking: Where is coverage of special-interest influence in the Republican Party?
In its newsletter, Extra, FAIR noted that George Bush has received political action community donations from ARCO, AT&T, BankAmerica, Citicorp, Disney, and other corporate giants.