After weeks of pummeling by Vice-President George Bush for being ``soft'' on defense, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis finally rolled out the heavy armor. On Tuesday he bolted out of a General Dynamics warehouse near Detroit sitting atop a M1A1 Abrams battle tank. With one hand on a machine gun and the other gripping the hatch, Mr. Dukakis roared around an open field at 40 miles an hour. As he zipped by the onlookers, the tank's cannon swung toward the press, causing some in the media to duck and bringing a broad grin to the nominee's face.
Standing in the M1's ``loader's weapon station'' was an appropriate symbol for a week in which Dukakis was stockpiling political ammunition. The week was targeted by the campaign as the time to establish the Massachusetts governor as a strong supporter of national defense.
The political blitzkrieg culminated Wednesday in a major address at Georgetown University in Washington, where Mr. Dukakis provided the most detailed picture thus far of his defense positions.
Credibility as commander in chief
The Georgetown speech followed other appearances designed to raise his credibility as a future commander in chief.
On Monday, Mr. Dukakis stood in front of uniformed National Guardsmen in Philadelphia as he criticized Mr. Bush's foreign policy record; later that day he toured a General Electric plant in Ohio that makes engines for the Stealth bomber. On Tuesday, before the tank ride here, Dukakis discussed Soviet-US relations before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. He portrayed himself as less skeptical of Soviet intentions and more willing to work with the Soviets than Bush is - a position Dukakis implied is close to President Reagan's thinking.
In the Georgetown address, Dukakis emphasized his support for maintaining a strong and survivable nuclear deterrent as well as effective conventional forces, and he vowed to restore good management to the Pentagon.
``I support and I intend to go forward as planned with the Trident 2 sea-based missile to offset the Soviet Union's highly accurate missiles, and with the Stealth bomber and the advanced cruise missile to counter improvements in Soviet air defense,'' the Democratic nominee said. He repeated his opposition to large, land-based MX missiles, however, terming them ``sitting ducks.'' And although he said ``the strategic concept of the Midgetman is sound,'' he questioned ``the value of spending $40 billion or $50 billion'' on this smaller missile's mobile launcher.
Challenge to Soviet Union
Dukakis said that modernization of America's nuclear defenses had to be coupled with further advances in negotiations with the Soviet Union. As president, he said, he would issue a ``challenge'' to the Soviets ``to move beyond the limits of START [strategic arms reduction talks] to stop the development of new and more dangerous weapons ..., to stop developing fast new submarine missiles that can attack our bombers before they get off the ground; to eliminate all of their SS-18s, the most dangerous and deadly missiles on the Earth today; [and] to stop the testing of nuclear weapons.''
At Georgetown, Dukakis also continued his assaults on what he characterizes as GOP mismanagement of defense procurement and spending. During the Reagan administration there has developed at the Pentagon, he said, ``a new Republican triad: waste, duplication, and fraud.''
``This administration has not done a particularly good job at providing for the national defense,' explains Jim Steinberg, deputy issues director of the Dukakis campaign. ``They [the Republicans] have increased the amount of funding - that has given us some additional capability, but they haven't really managed that well. They have shortchanged our conventional forces. They have shortchanged the equipment, spare parts and maintenance. ... Instead they have invested in a lot of dubious systems and they've spread money around without any kind of focus or priorities.''
Confidence gap on defense
Yet polls show that Dukakis has a confidence gap when voters are asked which candidate they would like to have in charge of defense and foreign policy. Dukakis met last weekend with 11 members of Congress who are considered defense heavyweights, including Democratic Sens. Sam Nunn and Albert Gore Jr.
Bush was able somewhat to volley the meeting of Democratic big guns by announcing his own national security advisory board Monday. He highlighted the inclusion of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, who has endorsed Bush. Appearing with Bush in Washington, Mr. Brzezinski, while insisting that he is ``a card-carrying Democrat,'' said: ``I just have the feeling that Dukakis's view of the world is basically out of touch with the difficult realities of the world.''
In a speech last week, Bush asked about Dukakis: ``Does he believe in defense against strategic missiles or doesn't he? My opponent seems not to understand that no new MX, no new Midgetman, [and] no flight testing adds up to no modernization of the land-based leg of our triad.''
``The Republicans are deliberately distorting his positions,'' counters Dukakis aide Steinberg. ``One of the things that will become clear in the course of this week is that the governor supports a strong nuclear deterrent, he supports going forward with the Stealth bomber, the Trident 2 [submarine missile], and he will work with Congress on the land-based missile problem.''