Democrats brace for race

ENERGIZED by an upbeat convention, Democrats now brace for a spirited fall campaign against George Bush and the Republicans. The national convention in Atlanta was the calm before the storm. Political experts say the coming struggle with Vice-President Bush will be tough, negative, and probably very close - perhaps the tightest election in more than a decade.

It's a contest that could be determined by the outcome in a single state, such as California, Texas, or Ohio.

Michael Dukakis vows to run an aggressive, 50-state race that will challenge Republicans even in their Sunbelt strongholds. It's a strategy that insiders say could knock Mr. Bush seriously off balance.

Analysts say several target states are emerging for both parties.

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, says he sees no way for Governor Dukakis to win 270 electoral votes, and capture the White House, without taking California. ``It's the golden state,'' he says.

But with Lloyd Bentsen of Texas on the Democratic ticket, the oil-patch states are also getting new attention.

Despite Bush's strong ties to the oil industry, Democrats may have a shot at picking up victories in a number of petroculture states, from Louisiana to Wyoming to California. Altogether, those states have 110 electoral votes.

Robert Strauss, a former Democratic national chairman from Texas, says that while other regions prosper, parts of the oil patch are hurting worse than during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Dianne Feinstein, former Democratic mayor of San Francisco, says the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket could surprise Bush even in bedrock Republican states such as Nevada and Wyoming.

Partisan hyperbole? Not necessarily. Republican pollster Lance V. Terrance, who is based in Houston, sees caution flags waving for Bush in the petroculture states.

Mr. Terrance says some analysts are misled by Senator Bentsen's selection because they see it primarily as part of a Southern strategy, a way to recoup support from Southern whites.

Mr. Dukakis is more shrewd than that, Terrance suggests. Republicans are deeply entrenched in the South, far more so than in 1960 when another Massachusetts nominee, John F. Kennedy, picked another Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, and recaptured the South.

Today, Democrats might make some gains there with Mr. Bentsen, but it will never be 1960 again. Republicans have governors in four Southern states, including Florida. Republican voter registration has soared. The GOP's base has solidified in Southern states with major cities, including Orlando, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Atlanta, with booming suburbs.

When Bentsen was picked, Terrance contends, Dukakis was looking west as much as south. Houston, the nation's oil capital, is the trail head for the petroculture states. Its roads lead directly to Casper, Wyo., Denver, and Los Angeles, Terrance says.

He suggests that Bush let his ties to Texas erode while he was vice-president, and that Republicans did little to ease the pain of falling oil prices in the petroculture states.

By breaking the Republican grip on the oil states, and putting the conservative Bentsen on the ticket, Democrats not only go after the South, they attack the entire Republican base in the Sunbelt, from coast to coast, Terrance argues. It puts the GOP under great pressure.

Texas offers the most vivid example in this scenario. While Bentsen strokes the conservative business community and the courthouse crowd that dominates Texas politics, the more liberal Dukakis goes after blacks and Hispanics along the Rio Grande. It's a one-two punch that has moved Texas from ``solid Republican'' to ``tossup.''

This Democratic offensive against the Republican base will reduce GOP pressures in the North, where Dukakis is strongest. It will divert Republican resources from the major industrial states, such as New York and Illinois, where Dukakis must do well.

In the final analysis, pollster Hart says, the winner will be the candidate who captures the confidence of the American voter. It's still unclear who that will be.

At a breakfast meeting with reporters, Hart called this election ``much trickier than people have suggested.''

On the surface, some analysts say the public is ``breaking to the left,'' which favors Dukakis. The public criticizes Bush as weak, unpresidential, and tied to Ronald Reagan's apron strings. But Hart says it's not that simple.

For example, a recent Hart poll found 37 percent of voters thought Bush was too wedded to the status quo. But the same poll found 39 percent worried that Dukakis would make too many changes.

The public remains ambivalent, Hart says. That's why this race could go down to the wire.

In the July 22 issue, the caption under a front page photograph incorrectly identified a Democratic convention delegate. The caption should have identified the man as Tom Esgate, a Dukakis delegate from Indiana.

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