Election '88: `So's your old man!'

Tough. Negative. Personal. Election '88 has turned mean, and experts say it now shapes up as the nastiest since 1964.

The ill humor on both sides could carry into Thursday's debate (9 p.m., Eastern time) between George Bush and Michael Dukakis here in California. If it does, the fireworks could be spectacular.

Each side blames the other for the acrid atmosphere that hangs over the campaign. The airwaves are filled with charge and countercharge as Vice-President Bush and Governor Dukakis pump an estimated $3 million a week into TV ads, almost all negative.

Dukakis aides bristle over Bush TV commercials that paint the governor as a soft-on-crime liberal who backs a revolving-door prison policy for first-degree murderers.

The Bush camp fumes over TV attacks on his running mate, Dan Quayle. Dukakis commercials charge that the choice of Senator Quayle reflects poorly on the vice-president's judgment.

``We should be deeply concerned about this kind of campaigning,'' says George Grayson, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary. ``It seems to have become pervasive.''

All this dismays many voters. Political experts worry it will hurt voter turnout, which some predict this year will be the lowest of the decade.

The knifing has hurt both sides. The latest figures from the Gallup Organization show Mr. Bush perceived unfavorably by 37 percent of the voters, analyst Neil Upmeyer says. Mr. Dukakis gets negative ratings from 39 percent of the voters. Before the GOP went on the attack, Dukakis's negative ratings were as low as 15 percent.

Despite widespread dismay over the attack strategy of the campaigns, political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia says that it is nothing new to politics.

Dr. Sabato recalls that ``presidential elections in the 1800s were far more personal and vicious than this one. And 1988 is not particularly negative compared to 1964'' between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, he says. Some of the complaints heard about negative campaigning ``betray a lack of knowledge about history,'' Sabato says.

He suggests there is another factor that is responsible for the public's discomfort about the 1988 campaign.

``The root cause of all this disaffection is the candidates' focusing on nitpicking issues, rather than root issues like the budget deficit.''

But Sabato blames the voters more than the candidates.

``Why aren't the candidates discussing the root issues? Because voters are not in a mood to hear what needs to be done. You cannot blame a candidate for not talking about solutions to issues that will result in his defeat.''

Sabato recalls that Walter Mondale tried that approach in 1984 when he proposed higher taxes to cut the budget deficit - and promptly plunged in the polls.

Is one side, Bush or Dukakis, more to blame for the mudslinging?

Bush charges that the Democrats started it. At the Democratic convention, speaker after speaker trashed the vice-president. ``Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth,'' quipped keynoter Ann Richards. Speaker Jim Hightower said Bush was ``a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.''

The Dukakis staff retorts that ever since the Republican convention, Bush has taken the low road on issues like the pledge of allegiance, prison furloughs, and pollution of Boston Harbor.

A Bush ad now on national TV illustrates the point. In somber black-and-white photography, it depicts criminals moving quickly through a revolving door. An announcer says:

``As governor, Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatory sentences for drug dealers. He vetoed the death penalty. His revolving-door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole. ... America can't afford that risk.''

Bush struck simultaneously through the mails. There are reports that 300,000 pamphlets on the pledge of allegiance were sent recently to Texas conservatives. The pamphlets allude to a 1977 veto by Dukakis of a bill that would have required teachers to lead their classes in the pledge. The pamphlets charge: ``Here are the words Dukakis doesn't want your child to say.''

At first, Dukakis reeled under such attacks. He had no counterpunch. But his advertising team has regrouped, and now he is swinging back. The prime target: Dan Quayle.

One of the new Dukakis ads, over the sound of a heartbeat, notes that one in five vice-presidents goes on to become president. The faces of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford flicker across the screen. Then the contrast is drawn with Mr. Quayle. The ad says that ``hopefully'' America will never know what a ``great lapse in judgment'' Quayle's selection by Bush was.

Strategists on both sides say negative campaigning has escalated because it works. Deborah Steelman, Bush's issues adviser, says the pledge, furloughs, and other issues were selected because they drew a sharp contrast between the vice-president and the governor.

Professor Sabato, however, suggests that soon after Thursday's debate, the tone will change again. Some negative advertising will continue. But in the final weeks, both campaigns will put a positive spin on their messages.

``You switch to positives for the last phase to wash out the bitter taste, after you have destroyed the opposition,'' he says. ``You know they are not going to vote for him. But now you need to convince voters that they should go to the trouble to vote for you.''

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