Democratic insiders say Michael Dukakis has two weeks to get his campaign back on track, or the 1988 election could be lost. Against that gloomy backdrop, Governor Dukakis has begun to lash out at George Bush and the Republicans - comparing their campaigning to the infamous tactics of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950s.
Experts say Mr. Dukakis will have to keep battling back in coming days, or his poll numbers will worsen.
Dukakis's standing has slipped steadily. Day after day, Vice-President Bush has delivered what one Democratic strategist calls ``rabbit punches.'' Democrats say Dukakis has to prove he can duke it out with Mr. Bush, even on emotional, personal issues.
The daily thumping from Bush, focused on highly charged topics like the Pledge of Allegiance and furloughs for murderers, has taken a heavy toll. The polls, where Dukakis once led by 17 points, now show a solid Bush lead. Big states are falling into the Bush column.
Yet Dukakis aides say the governor, despite a counterattack last week, won't abandon his ``high road'' strategy.
Christopher Edley, Dukakis issues director, says: ``There are those in the campaign who, given their druthers, would make every campaign event a rally speech with a lot of one-line zingers aimed at George Bush.''
Mr. Edley charges that Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater has turned the vice-president into an ``attack dog.'' Edley admits the attacks are hurting.
``It's not that a negative campaign is ineffective. It's that he [Dukakis] thinks that positive campaigning is more effective in the long run.''
But there is concern.
``As a staffer, I have decided that this candidate requires a kind of religious faith,'' Edley says. Dukakis simply refuses to be ``repackaged.''
Veteran Democrats, like former national chairman John White, say there is still time for Dukakis to regain his footing. But the governor can't afford to just stand there taking hits.
``Winning politics ... is enthusiasm. It's not position papers,'' Mr. White says. ``You can win the intellectual community [with position papers], but how many of us are intellectuals?''
Even if Dukakis avoids daily counterattacks against Bush, the governor should at least defend himself more effectively from personal charges, White says.
``It's OK to get mad in politics. A little righteous indignation is appropriate,'' White says.
Dukakis showed some of that in Texas. He was incensed by Bush's comments about a 1977 Massachusetts bill that would have required teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance. Dukakis vetoed it. Bush says he would have signed it.
Dukakis told a crowd of 4,500 at East Texas State University: ``Now they're attacking my patriotism.''
He denounced such tactics. ``The American people and the people of Texas can smell the garbage,'' he said.
Such Dukakis counterattacks may be rare, however. Tad Devine, a Dukakis man assigned to oversee the campaign of Lloyd Bentsen, the vice-presidential nominee, says that over the long run the governor wants to keep the campaign focused on the future.
Dukakis wants to emphasize the tough choices the nation faces, Mr. Devine says. It's an ``eat your vegetables'' approach to politics.
``Sometimes the price of leadership is telling people things they don't want to hear,'' Devine notes. ``That's something this ticket is ready to do.''
Still, there are those Bush attacks to contend with. They are a ``strong body blow,'' says Democrat White. ``You know, questioning a man's patriotism is outrageous.''
Bush counters that he is not questioning Dukakis's patriotism, he is questioning his judgment.
Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, says the next two weeks are ``terribly important'' for Dukakis ``to restart the race'' and ``frame the dialogue.'' Mr. Garin says there's now a consensus that ``Dukakis needs to be more aggressive.'' The question is: How?
Dukakis aides point to several possibilities:
Attack Bush's judgment. Particularly, single out his choice of Dan Quayle for his running mate as proof that Bush would not bring the most experienced people into government.
Attack Mr. Quayle himself. Contrast his experience with that of Senator Bentsen. One Democrat says the most effective campaign pin for his party might be one that simply says: ``President Quayle.'' Is that a possibility American voters want to contemplate?
Attack the Reagan-Bush economy. Play on the unease many voters feel. Drum up American economic nationalism and accuse the Republicans of failure to defend vital US economic interests in industries like semiconductors and electronics.