Democrats still wary of Reagan

THE strategy for the days ahead was disclosed in Atlanta in what was said - and what was not said. The Democrats are going to whack George Bush with everything they have. They'll deride him and make fun of him. They may not get nasty - but this is already a personal, not an issue-oriented, campaign. What the Democrats are not going to do is also clear, however: They aren't going to make the mistake of attacking President Reagan. They'll criticize his record without mentioning his name. They'll even sometimes find fault with the ``Reagan administration.'' But they are not going to take any chance of appearing to be running against this popular President.

Sen. Edward Kennedy gave Mr. Bush a real going over for allegedly being absent whenever there might have been an opportunity to do something good for his country. Mr. Kennedy did it with a sarcastic chant: ``Where was George?''

Then he went on to pay Mr. Reagan a left-handed compliment - asserting that the President had, unlike Bush, admitted his participation in the arms-for-hostages deal. This sally was done with good humor and was about as close as anyone at the convention came to cuffing Ronald Reagan. No Reaganite could have been offended.

Later, in his acceptance speech, Governor Dukakis spoke well of the President's success in slowing the nuclear arms race.

Michael Dukakis proved his dexterity during convention week. He cajoled the conservatives. He contained Jesse Jackson. Some of this may come unstuck, but at this point the Massachusetts governor seems a political genius.

Internal party problems are pretty well in hand. All Dukakis has to do now is concentrate on beating Bush. Except for one thing: He and his staff haven't figured out a way of dealing with the politically fearsome Reagan.

Publicly, the Democratic leaders will play down the effect of Reagan's campaigning for Bush. They say the President's popularity won't rub off on Bush. ``Reagan campaigned hard for those Republicans running for office in 1986,'' notes House Democratic whip Tony Coelho. ``But he didn't hurt us one bit.''

But the Democrats are savvy. They remember how President Eisenhower's campaigning did help Richard Nixon in 1960. In the last days of that race, however, Ike stopped taking part. It has become accepted wisdom that Eisenhower might have won that close contest for Mr. Nixon had he been willing to contribute a last-minute campaigning boost.

Most people voting for president don't have any close-up knowledge of the candidates. That's where a popular incumbent president can step in and say, ``Take my word for it: So and so is a good man. Vote for him.''

Besides the likelihood of presidential involvement, there is another parallel between 1960 and now. John F. Kennedy, too, had to beat off a strong convention challenge, from the 1952 and '56 candidate, Adlai Stevenson.

The stomping, cheering, and marching went on and on after Stevenson was nominated in 1960. At times it appeared the delegates committed to Kennedy would turn to Adlai. But it didn't quite happen. The iron discipline of the Kennedy people prevailed.

Kennedy came out of that convention the clear underdog - bogged down by his religion. Mr. Dukakis, by contrast, is now the favorite.

The Kennedy-Nixon contest, like the race emerging now, was intensely personal. Attacks against Nixon were often hateful and bitter. Bush is ``poor George.'' But Nixon was ``Tricky Dick.''

Eisenhower's terms in office were marked by prosperity and a sense of well-being. He had maintained the peace. Major issues were scarce for the Democrats. So the Kennedy camp made personal attack a basic strategy.

Nearly all Americans agreed with the slogan ``I Like Ike.'' But Nixon, who had been the Republicans' hatchet man for years, was an easy target. Nixon tried to win on the Eisenhower-Nixon record. But the anti-Nixon feeling abroad in the land - intensified by Democratic campaigning - set the stage for a personable, likable Kennedy to emerge, narrowly, as the winner.

Again this year, the Democrats don't have the issues. Wearing arms control laurels, Reagan is now a peacemaker. Unemployment is down. Economic growth is strong. Inflation, relatively low. The voters don't seem to care about the immense budget deficit. Economic doom may be on the horizon, but you can't pick up many votes with that prediction.

So the Democrats chart a personal attack. Will it work?

Most observers see an extremely close race ahead. Into that arena steps President Reagan, who, unlike Ike, likes his vice-president and will campaign extensively for him. While a popular Eisenhower may have kept Nixon from winning by withholding an all-out effort, this President is set to give his all for his good friend George.

The Democrats see this possibility and are concerned.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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