Michael Dukakis, down to the last 12 days of the 1988 campaign, is urging voters to take one final, close look at the Democratic ticket. The governor knows the hour is late. The polls are ominous. George Bush continues to pound Mr. Dukakis on his record. Cheering, enthusiastic Bush crowds indicate that Republican strength is growing.
But Dukakis has a three-part strategy that he hopes will catapult him past Vice-President Bush in the waning hours of the race. (Dukakis down but not out, P. 14.) His plan:
First, hammer Mr. Bush for what Dukakis charges are ``lies'' and ``distortions'' of the governor's record. Put Bush on the defensive.
Second, concentrate on TV. Take every possible opportunity for lengthy appearances where he will talk about himself and his record in detail. This week's 90-minute ``Nightline'' interview on ABC will be followed by an unusually long interview taking up half the ``CBS Evening News'' tonight.
Finally, wrap up the campaign with four upbeat, ``feel good'' TV ads that will show the American people where he will lead the country.
Dukakis concedes the race is tough. The latest CBS/New York Times poll shows him falling 13 points behind, 51 percent to 38 percent. The governor admits he has difficulty communicating his deep feelings about issues. But he told the ``Nightline'' audience:
``I'm going to do my very best to go to [voters] with a good strong, positive message about the future of this country, and about the difference it will make if Mike Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen are elected president and vice-president of the United States.''
Dukakis's first political task, however, is to knock the high-riding Bush campaign off balance. His aim: Raise doubts about Bush. Charge the vice-president with lying. Accuse the Republicans of running a dirty campaign.
Mark Gearan, a Dukakis aide, calls Bush's tactics ``nasty,'' and says:
``Regrettably, the Bush campaign is based on rumor, innuendo, lies, and distortion. His campaign has questioned Michael Dukakis's patriotism.... It has pressed the issue of his mental health.''
``A Republican United States senator made remarks about Kitty Dukakis burning the American flag, and [Bush] said nothing to disavow it,'' he says. ``The co-chairman of the Bush campaign, John Sununu, went on TV to state that he had seen reports that Senator Bentsen used influence to get his son into the National Guard, but could never substantiate it.''
Bush's campaign is characterized by ``wild charges with reckless disregard for the truth,'' Mr. Gearan says.
``In the past few weeks, they've commenced an advertising campaign that clearly distorts the governor's record. We're not talking about just verbal excesses. These are clear instances of distortion - from the furlough program, to gun control, to defense positions.''
Dukakis counterattacked this week with a series of papers detailing what they call ``Bush's lies and distortions.''
His staff detailed 34 cases where Bush is accused of fudging the facts. Some examples:
A Bush TV ad charges that Dukakis ``has opposed virtually every defense system we developed.''
Dukakis responds that he supports the B-2 Stealth bomber, the Trident 2 missile, the advanced cruise missile, the YF-22A/23A advanced tactical fighter, the SSN-21 Seawolf attack submarine, and ``many others.''
A Bush ad says Dukakis ``criticized our rescue missions to Grenada, and our strike on Libya.''
Dukakis denies both claims.
A Bush ad says Dukakis failed to clean up Boston Harbor when he had the opportunity.
The Democrat's staff responds: ``Mike Dukakis launched the Boston Harbor cleanup - the most comprehensive sewage treatment project in the country.''
Bush said that Willie Horton, a Massachusetts inmate serving a life term, ``raped and murdered again'' while on a furlough.
Dukakis notes that Mr. Horton, while on escape from furlough, did not commit murder.
Bush said Dukakis ``presided over a state that lost 26,000 jobs since 1983.'' Bush apparently meant to say ``manufacturing jobs.''
Dukakis counters that since 1983, 407,800 jobs have been created in Massachusetts.
Does such arguing over facts help Dukakis? His aides say yes, though some political analysts suggest that it focuses even more attention on issues like prison furloughs and Dukakis's defense positions - right where Bush wants it.
Meanwhile, Bush is standing his ground. On the campaign trail this week, the vice-president defended his charge that Dukakis had opposed the Grenada mission.
Mark Gooden, a Bush aide, also counters that ``Dukakis's opposition to the Stealth, the MX missile, and many programs is well documented. He supported a nuclear freeze. And when you back a freeze, you freeze everything in the present position. You cannot back a freeze and say you back [new weapons].''
Larry Hugick, an analyst at the Gallup Organization, says Dukakis's strategy of attacking Bush is a long shot. It might increase public unhappiness with Bush. But Mr. Hugick wonders why, if Bush has run a campaign of ``fear and smear'' for the past two months, did it take Dukakis so long to react?