Dukakis's Texas strategy. Bentsen choice shows Democrats not conceding the South

Michael Dukakis's choice of Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate represents a high-risk political strategy - but one that could yield big rewards. A Dukakis-Bentsen ticket turns Texas into a battleground for the 1988 campaign. It carries the fight onto George Bush's home turf.

The Texas strategy will force Republicans to devote precious resources to defending their stronghold. As one analyst puts it, Texas could become Mr. ``Bush's hair shirt.''

But experts caution that even with Senator Bentsen on the ticket, Texas will be a long shot for Democrats. It will be far tougher to overcome the Republican advantage there than in 1960, when another Massachusetts nominee, John F. Kennedy, picked Lyndon B. Johnson to be his running mate.

There was also widespread surprise that Mr. Dukakis passed up almost certain victory in Ohio if he had picked Sen. John Glenn as his vice-president. Ohio, one of the six or seven large states vital to Democratic hopes, now could slip into the Republican column.

The Bentsen choice also left a major question unanswered: How will the supporters of Jesse Jackson respond?

Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a longtime leader of the Southern civil rights movement, struck a chord that Dukakis aides hope will be typical.

Dukakis has done all he could to meet the Rev. Mr. Jackson's demands, Mr. Lewis says. It's time to unite and win the White House, he adds.

But in a fleeting interview with reporters at Washington National Airport yesterday, Jackson said he was not told officially of the choice of Mr. Bentsen before the news was became public. Only the night before, Jackson had said publicly for the first time that he wanted the No. 2 spot.

A number of pundits said they were surprised by the selection of Bentsen.

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution said he finds it ``a peculiar choice.''

He explains: ``I'm very surprised. I'm skeptical that with Bentsen on the ticket they can carry Texas.''

Mr. Hess also wonders about Bentsen's insider status in Washington, suggesting that the Texan may have a ``wheeler-dealer image that has to be considered a negative.''

Bentsen came in for scathing criticism last year when he took over chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, then told lobbyists on Capitol Hill that they could have breakfast every month with him for a payment of $10,000. Under fire, he withdrew the idea.

Republicans reacted to the announcement with caution.

Peter Teeley, who worked closely with Bush during the primaries, says the Texas strategy of Dukakis opens up great possibilities for Bush in the Midwest.

That could increase the possibility that Bush will select in the No. 2 spot someone like Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas or Gov. James Thompson of Illinois.

Mr. Teeley sees overtones of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket of 1960, with which Democrats eked out a win over Richard Nixon. But he notes that ``it is a 1960 strategy without a solid South'' in the Democratic corner. Only by sweeping most of the South did Kennedy win.

Robert Beckel, who managed Walter Mondale's campaign in 1984, says that from the very beginning, many Democrats felt that victory would require carrying ``one of the twin towers of Florida and Texas'' in the South.

If Dukakis thinks he has a shot at winning Texas, ``that's very smart politics,'' he says.

But Mr. Beckel told a breakfast meeting of reporters yesterday that most of the South is probably far out of reach.

``It's hard to imagine where you make inroads in the South [as a Democrat], including Texas,'' he says. ``You've still got enormous white [voter] strength going to the Republican Party. There might be some states you could pick off: Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky. But after that, it gets to be a real reach.''

One insider who did not want to be identified said the greatest long-term problem for Dukakis-Bentsen could be the senator's close association with political-action committees. Bentsen's ties to House Speaker Jim Wright, who is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee, could also be troublesome, he said.

But William Feltus, a Republican strategist, suggests that the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket will have even more fundamental problems in Texas.

``If you are a Texan voting for your own self-interest, you want a president, not a vice-president,'' Mr. Feltus says. ``Texas had a vice-president for the last eight years. Now they're ready for the presidency.''

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