TONIGHT is issues night at the Republican convention, and voters who tune in will get a sneak preview of the GOP's fall lineup. The feature is called ``Close Encounters of the Liberal Kind,'' a political portrayal starring Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee. With their eyes fixed on the swing voters who will pick the next president, the Republicans plan to grind down Mr. Dukakis's popularity with a relentless barrage of conservative-vs.-liberal contrasts on such issues as crime, taxes, and a strong defense. The tactical goal is to leave no doubt in the minds of voters that Dukakis is an unabashed liberal.
The foundation of the issues strategy is the Republican platform, a 150-page political manifesto spelling out where the GOP wants to take the country. Few voters will ever read it, but excerpts from it will roll across Vice-President George Bush's TelePrompTer for the next three months.
Bush forces are confident that if they can just get the message out about how liberal the Democratic Party and its nominee are, the swing Democrats who supported President Reagan will swarm back to the GOP.
``The emphasis on the issues is for a purpose,'' says James Lake, Mr. Bush's communication director. ``Let [voters] know where Mike Dukakis is on the issues as opposed to George Bush, and that way bring them back to our camp.''
Mr. Lake says the Democrats ``got their heads bashed in'' after their 1984 convention produced a detailed agenda ``favoring things most Americans don't favor.'' He and other Bush operatives claim the thin Democratic platform - seven pages - is a smoke screen hiding the party's true liberal intentions.
The platform serves other purposes, as well. Bush has avoided conflict with the right wing of the party by largely accepting the 1984 platform language on controversial issues such as abortion. ``The simple answer for the conservatives is we feel that we received the platform that we wished,'' says conservative Donald Devine.
Moderate Republicans did gain ground in the platform, though. The increased attention given to federal education assistance (such as the Head Start program), worker retraining, catastrophic health care for children, the environment, and minority-business development angered some conservatives.
Several moderates on the platform committee held a press conference to proclaim their support despite some disagreements. ``We have agreed to disagree,'' says Gov. John McKernan Jr. of Maine, a moderate.
``You never get 100 percent of what you want in a platform,'' says Charles Black, Bush's platform political director. ``The average voter is not going to sit down and spend three or four hours' reading it trying to worry about the nuances of every word.'' The important thing, Mr. Black says, is that the final document ``gives a very specific picture or where Bush wants to take the party.''
Black also says that the addition of planks to the 1984 platform reflects a broadening of the party's agenda now that the GOP has scored successes in foreign affairs, defense, and the economy.
Democratic critics are already saying the platform is long on words and short on substance. For example, they note that the it doesn't call for economic sanctions against South Africa. To these critics, the statements, ``Republicans deplore the apartheid system ... and consider it morally repugnant,'' and ``we will not rest until apartheid is eliminated from South Africa,'' are inadequate.
On the budget deficit, President Reagan is not at fault, according to the GOP document. ``No President can cause deficits,'' it says. ``Congress votes to spend money. The American people must prevent big spending congressional Democrats from bringing back big budget deficits.'' New taxes are equated to ``addictive drugs. ... Every shot makes Congress want to spend more.''
Dukakis isn't mentioned by name in the document, but he doesn't escape attention. In the health section is a commitment ``to avoiding the kind of medical crisis facing Massachusetts - a state the American Medical Association has labeled the `Beirut of medicine.'''
On defense and foreign policy, the platform reaffirms the Republicans' ``determination to provide meaningful aid to people who would rather die on their feet than live on their knees under the yoke of Soviet supported suppression.''
On energy, the platform brags that the GOP has ``left behind the days of gasoline lines, building temperature controls, ... and the cancellation of night baseball games.''
The overall conservative flavor of the platform is apparent. ``Fighting poverty means much more than distributing cash,'' it says. ``In public housing, we have turned away from the disasters of the past, when whole neighborhoods became instant slums through federal meddling.''
Highlights of 1988 GOP platform Introduction ``Defending and expanding freedom is our first priority.'' ``The Democrats were telling us that there was something wrong with America. ... Something was terribly wrong, but not with the people. A half century of destructive policies, pitting Americans against one another for the benefit of the Democrats' political machine, had come to a dead end. ... They fantasize our economy is declining.'' ``They can't build the future on fear. ...''
Government spending Support: Endorsement of Vice-President George Bush's ``flexible freeze'' on the federal budget Line-item veto Balanced budget by 1993 No new taxes Reduction of long-term capital gains tax to 15 percent
Education Support: Merit pay and performance testing for teachers Use of vouchers so parents can pick the schools of their choice Increase in Head Start and pre-kindergarten funding Bush's college savings bond program Vocational training and worker retraining
Crime Support: Reinstating federal death penalty Death penalty for drug kingpins sponsoring violence Eviction from federal housing if convicted of dealing drugs Revoking drivers' licenses if convicted of a drug offense Drug and alcohol testing for transportation workers Use of armed forces in war against drugs Oppose: Furloughs for convicted murderers
Civil rights Support: School prayer Clear preference for pro-life judges Language supporting equal rights, but no endorsement of the ERA More women candidates Oppose: Abortion Racial and gender quotas
Congress Support: Limit on the number of consecutive terms for members of Congress
Social programs Support: Repeal of social security earnings limitation for those providing child-care services Medicaid for welfare mothers entering the work force Use of vouchers for federal housing assistance Toddler tax credit Help for teen-age mothers to stay in school Catastrophic health coverage for children Alternatives to the use of animals in scientific and medical testing Increase in AIDS research funding
Energy; environment Support: Domestic oil producers Conservation, as well as the prudent use of other energy resources including oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power Increased research and development in search of alternative fuels Reduction of acid rain, toxic wastes, and ground water contamination Reduce coastal erosion and prevent ocean dumping Oppose: Windfall profits tax
Science/technology Support: Manned Mars mission by 2000 Permanent space station Antisatellite capability Superconducting supercollider Research and development tax credit
Agriculture Support: Free trade Increased agricultural research Oppose: Subsidies and federal controls
Defense Support: ``Rapid and certain'' deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Chemical weapons research Civil defense preparedness Sharing of defense cost burden with US allies Military testing for drug abuse Oppose: Pentagon mismanagement
Foreign policy Support: Israel Aid to the contras Arms control with verification ``Pre-emptive measures'' against terrorists Focus foreign aid on child survival An expanded economic role for Japan in supporting defense costs, third-world debt and development Oppose: Palestinian state Apartheid in South Africa, but no economic boycott