Yes, Dukakis could come back

DEAR Voter, I'm troubled by the letters I'm getting. No one is angry. No one is even slightly incensed over what I have been writing about this presidential race. In the 32 years I have covered these national campaigns this has never happened.

Oh, yes, I have had a number of well-reasoned challenges to what I have said about George Bush and Michael Dukakis. But the tone has always been temperate. I mentioned this oddity to a group of national political writers the other morning. These reporters said their mail contained this same absence of heated complaints.

They concluded that this simply reflects a unique voter attitude this year. They said there wasn't any passion, that voters were beginning to line up behind a candidate - but with little conviction and emotion. And they said that these voters weren't writing angry letters because they weren't sufficiently attached to their favorite candidate to be offended by articles they didn't agree with.

The polls have been telling us an unusual number of people this year are unable to make up their minds. Now they show that these voters are beginning to come behind Mr. Bush or Mr. Dukakis.

But polls can't measure intensity of allegiance. Letters - and interviews with people around the United States - can provide such a measure. So it seems obvious to me that many Americans, perhaps a majority, are not emotionally committed to a presidential candidate.

So what does such an enigmatic voter attitude mean in a race that many observers are saying is over and saying Bush is the likely winner?

Dukakis could make a comeback. Voters without a deep commitment for one candidate could be persuaded to shift their choice. Should Bush commit some immense blunder or be positively shown as involved in something scandalous, he might lose many lukewarm followers.

Even a highly spirited Dukakis campaign where, `a la Harry Truman in 1948, he emerges as a spunky campaigner, just might cause a turnaround. Americans like a gutsy, feisty underdog. Dukakis's small stature might even serve him well if he began to be perceived as the candidate who is battling against the odds and the critics. People might begin to say, ``I like the way the little fellow is fighting back.''

But I have doubts. If this were a Hubert Humphrey, a comeback might be achievable. Indeed, Humphrey almost pulled off a come-from-behind effort - only a few weeks before the 1968 election the polls showed him running strong behind Richard Nixon.

I was traveling on Humphrey's press plane during those final days. He was a heroic figure, campaigning with gusto from early morning until late at night. There was a persistence in his voice and demeanor that began to draw the voters to him. The final result was a razor-thin win for Nixon. Had not George Wallace been on the ballot that year, Humphrey would probably have won.

Dukakis does not strike me as another Truman or Humphrey. But he could prove me wrong. It's getting late. But if the Massachusetts governor could transform himself into an immensely appealing figure - someone that millions of voters find they can support with full conviction - he just might make a successful comeback. The only-mildly committed electorate would be responsive to such an appeal.

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