George Bush wants voters to remember that Los Angeles is a long way from Omaha, Neb. Michael Dukakis wants people to regard the two cities virtually as neighbors. After Sen. Dan Quayle's so-so showing against Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in Omaha last week, Mr. Bush is counting on this week's second and final presidential debate in Los Angeles to refocus media and voter attention on the top of the ticket.
For his part, Mr. Dukakis will seek to capitalize on the boost his campaign appears to have received from Senator Bentsen's performance. The timing is critical because the Los Angeles debate comes at a period when voters are finally making up their minds.
``It's the single most important 90 minutes of the year,'' says Ann Lewis, a Democratic political analyst. ``This is [Dukakis's] single best opportunity to draw personal comparisons between himself and George Bush on which of them can lead the country better.''
Ms. Lewis thinks the vice-presidential debate gave Dukakis a boost in this week's match-up. She says voters realize that the vice-presidency can be very important, and that Senator Quayle is a disturbing choice for that office.
``The Dukakis campaign is trying to remind the electorate that you are not voting for one candidate, you are voting for a team,'' she says.
``If you were voting on the basis of Bentsen or Quayle as president of the United States,'' says veteran analyst Richard Scammon, ``I don't think there is any question on who would win - Bentsen.'' The problem for Dukakis, he says, is that you can't vote separately.
Mr. Scammon thinks that the Omaha debate's significance will be ``overtaken by the final debate between the two principals.'' He adds: ``As people get closer and closer to the actual election day, they are more concerned about voting for president than they are about voting for vice-president.''
``[The debate] is critical to the Dukakis people because if they don't do something to show their voters that they have a chance at winning, their voters will begin to disengage,'' says Bradley O'Leary, a Republican consultant. ``It happened with [George] McGovern and [Walter] Mondale, and we are already seeing signs of it now,'' he says.
Bush has been setting the stage for the second debate in his most recent campaign attacks against Dukakis. The theme is a familair one: that Dukakis is soft on crime.
``The governor has shown great compassion for the difficulties of prisoners and their families,'' Bush told a crowd in Xenia, Ohio, last week. But ``when it comes to the plight of the victims and their families, there is what one can only describe as an astounding lack of sensitivity, a lack of human compassion.''
Bush's criticisms center around a Massachusetts program that allowed first-degree murderers furlough time even when they were ineligible for parole.
Bush said that Dukakis is among those who ``have become lost in the thickets of liberal sociology. ... When it comes to crime and criminals, they always seem to blame society first.''
Dukakis has been pounding on the theme of economic nationalism, the message stressed by Rep. Richard Gephardt in the Democratic primaries. The governor is accusing the Reagan-Bush administration with giving away American assets ``on the cheap'' to foreign interests.
``Maybe the Republican ticket wants our children to work for foreign owners, pay rent to foreign owners, and owe their future to foreign owners, but that's not the kind of future Lloyd Bentsen and I want for America,'' Dukakis told employees of Moog Automotive Inc., a parts manufacturing plant in Wellston, Mo.
In the speech Dukakis outlined his support for trade reciprocity, limited import relief for essential industries hit with unfair foreign competition, and an ``aggressive use of executive authority to break down foreign trade barriers.'' In exchange for the help, benefited companies must develop ``a plan to retool their plants, retrain their workers, and become more competitive,'' Dukakis said.
A problem with the governor's attempt to elevate the trade and foreign-investment issue in that setting is that Moog Automotive is owned by foreign interests. The company was bought in 1977 by an Italian holding company (IFI International) that is owned by the Agneli family, who founded and still maintain a controlling interest in Fiat.