Republicans have been telling the party faithful not to wring their hands over the Democrats' early lead in the polls. ``Don't worry,'' they say, ``George Bush will close in on Mike Dukakis as the election nears.'' One thing they didn't count on was it happening so soon.
Vice-President George Bush has begun focusing on Michael Dukakis's ``liberal'' record, hoping to raise the Massachusetts governor's ``negatives'' in the polls. Mr. Bush has zeroed in on his rival's use of a tax increase to help balance the commonwealth's budget, his support of a prison furlough program, and other issues he thinks will play well with an electorate grown more conservative.
Apparently it is working. A recent Gallup poll shows Bush closing in on Mr. Dukakis. The survey of 1,210 registered voters conducted last weekend shows Dukakis with a 46 percent-to-41 percent lead over Bush. This was a considerably better showing than just two weeks ago, when Gallup reported a 52 percent-to-38 percent lead by Dukakis. The survey, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, indicates that Dukakis's support among independents and Democratic swing voters is slipping.
Another poll, by ABC News and Money magazine, shows Dukakis leading by only three points; because the spread falls within the margin of sampling error, the race could be considered dead even. A poll by ABC News in late May gave Mr. Dukakis an 11-point lead.
The Bush camp says this is what they expected all along. Only not so soon: Just last weekend at a party gathering in Cincinnati, Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater was telling supporters to expect a summer of bad poll results. Mr. Atwater and others maintained that early poll results reflect little more than party affiliation.
Voters wouldn't start focusing, they said, on the real issues - the economy, foreign policy, and taxes - until September or October. Then, they argued, voters would start to recognize Dukakis as someone too prone to tax increases and government intervention and lacking experience in foreign policy.
The Bush camp sees two phases in the campaign from here on out. The first phase runs to the Republican convention in mid-August. Voters are forming impressions about the candidates, but are not necessarily making any firm decisions. The second phase, when voters start making up their minds, doesn't begin until Labor Day.
There are several factors that Bush advisers say are contributing to their general optimism:
This is the first time in 50 years that the Republicans are going into a presidential election (without an incumbent president) relatively close to the Democrats. Whereas they usually start 15 to 20 points behind, the Republicans now are within 4 to 6 points.
The Reagan administration has controlled, and changed, the political agenda for the last 7 years.
``The candidates who really control the agenda,'' says Robert Teeter, a senior Bush adviser, ``are the [candidates] that generally win.''
The Democrats (other than Jesse Jackson and Sen. Paul Simon) are not really seeking a new vision for America. Rather, Bush aides say, Democrats just claim that they can outperform the Reagan record. If voters are happy with the Reagan vision, they are likely to stick with a Republican, these aides say.
The issues that voters will eventually focus on are the economy and world peace, which traditionally benefit the GOP.
The American electorate is younger and better educated than ever before, and younger voters are the greatest source of Republican vigor.
The Republicans have a strong base in states that weight heavily in the electoral college, including California, Texas, and Florida.
Republicans see a realignment of voter preferences that began with Ronald Reagan. Keeping the White House in GOP hands, they say, is critical to locking in those shifting preferences.
``The watershed of whether we can make that change permanent or not ... has always been this '88 election,'' Mr. Teeter says. ``Once we had that party change, the key was: Can we elect another Republican president. ``If we can, then you are going to see Republican majorities dominate for most of the rest of our political lifetime.''
The issues most troubling for Bush, his advisers concede, will be the list of social concerns high on the agenda of independent and swing voters. Drugs top the list, but attention must also be given to child care and long-term health care. The vice-president will be further defining himself on these issues over the next few months.