All politics is local. So say the political pros. What that hoary adage means for seekers of the White House is that they can joust all they want in the stratosphere of presidential politics, but the election will be won - block by block, house by house - by the candidate who most successfully taps the passions of America's neighborhoods.
Gov. Michael Dukakis needs to tap those passions tonight. If he doesn't, political analysts say, pessimism over his campaign will grow and Democrats in state and local races will begin to jump ship. (Hopefuls have had competition for people's attention this busy fall, Page 6.)
No politician understands community passions better than a Democrat in a conservative district. There are lots of them throughout the South and in the West. Many of their constituents are folks who own guns, recite the pledge of allegiance, believe in capital punishment, and demand a strong national defense.
These are the issues Vice-President George Bush has used to hammer away at Mr. Dukakis, and these same issues are causing problems for Democratic candidates in conservative areas. Democratic incumbents tend to ``disengage'' from the national ticket when they smell defeat or their supporters don't like the top of the ticket.
Dukakis faces this ``disengagement'' if he does not do well in tonight's debate, observers say. Dukakis may be close in national polls, but, they point out, he is trailing badly in the Electoral College tally, according to state-by-state surveys.
``Dukakis has to throw a couple of long bombs,'' says Bradley O'Leary, a Republican analyst and president of the American Association of Political Consultants. ``If his slide [in the state polls] continues, disengagement will begin in earnest.''
Mr. O'Leary sees this last debate as a major turning point for the Democratic candidate. ``If people assess the debate and say, `That's it - he's gone,' there is just no way to turn it around.''
``If they are pulling away,'' says Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report newsletter, ``it's not that they don't like Dukakis.'' It will be, he says, because ``they woke up and smelled the coffee.''
Earlier this month Tom Murphy, Democratic Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, apparently sniffed the wind and dumped the Dukakis campaign. Mr. Murphy said he couldn't agree with Dukakis's position favoring gun control and opposing the death penalty. ``My people are right opposite on those issues,'' Murphy told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ``I've got to be with my people.''
``In those [conservative] constituencies, it's quite clear that local organizations and candidates are going to distance themselves, because self-preservation in politics is the first rule,'' says Ted Van Dyk, editor of the Washington Intelligence newsletter.
Thomas J. O'Donnell, an official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, denies that Democratic members of Congress are at risk from the presidential ticket.
``The fact is that most of the candidates are insulated from the presidential race,'' he says. ``Congressional candidates run on their accomplishments, and ... on local issues.''
As for talk of Democrats running from the ticket, Mr. O'Donnell says he sees no evidence of it. ``This election in no way compares to what happened [to Walter Mondale] in 1984. This is a competitive election.''
Still, a check with a number of Democratic campaign managers in conservative congressional districts indicates that most are running strictly local efforts.
``The people in our district don't like Dukakis,'' says Steven B. Haterius, campaign manager for Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas. Even though Congressman Stenholm is running without a Republican challenger, Mr. Haterius says they are being very cautious about associating with Dukakis:
``I would like him to just keep his distance from this district. The way that people feel here, it would be better for us.''
Mary Ann Viorel, campaign manager for Rep. Harold Volkmer (D) of Missouri, says her candidate ``is directly opposed to Mr. Dukakis's position on gun control and abortion, and I think that his constituents know that.'' By clearly stating where he differs with Dukakis, Mr. Volkmer has no problems with his supporters, Ms. Viorel says.