The marathon for the White House comes around the final turn this week with Democrats hoping that Michael Dukakis can suddenly sprint to an upset victory. Before anyone crosses the finish line, however, critics are already asking: Did Governor Dukakis stumble this race away? Did he allow George Bush to speed past the Democratic ticket, which sometimes seemed to run in circles?
Much of the criticism is coming from staunch Democrats. Even Dukakis and his running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, are conceding serious mistakes. Senator Bentsen says the ticket should have struck back sharply against Vice-President Bush months ago.
The key question now for Dukakis: Is it too late?
Everyone agrees on the Democratic ticket's problem. Beginning in August, Bush and his media team unleashed a barrage of attacks against Dukakis.
The governor, despite urging from many friends, failed to fight back with the same kind of emotion-laden attacks that have lofted Bush to a 9-13 point lead in most polls. Dukakis preferred a positive campaign.
But in TV commercials, Republicans successfully exploited issues such as the escape of Willie Horton while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, and Dukakis's veto of a pledge of allegiance bill.
Should Dukakis now respond in kind? And what issues could he use? His staff has dug into Bush's record for months to detect weak spots.
John Podesta, director of research for Dukakis, says Bush's ``failed leadership as vice-president'' is his most vulnerable point.
Mr. Podesta singles out six specific ``failures'' during Bush's vice-presidency relating to a range of assignments. Some have been mentioned during the campaign, but voters may hear more about them in this final week.
One of Bush's most egregious failures came in his assignment to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States, Podesta says.
``Bush was put in charge of drug interdiction, the South Florida Task Force. I think by most independent accounts, his leadership was a failure, and certainly the war on drugs was a failure.
``Cocaine imports tripled after Bush was put in charge. The price of cocaine is down. The number of deaths is up.
``Bush also failed to provide leadership on the demand side,'' Podesta says. ``They cut funding for drug education, for state and local law enforcement.''
Podesta also ridicules Bush's performance as head of a White House group that looked at trade problems with Japan in 1983.
``Bush never really got anything going,'' Podesta says. ``He went over there, heaped praise on the Japanese, called our trade relationship superb, and came back home. I think it was seen as a political loser issue, and he wanted off the assignment, which they relieved him of.''
Would Dukakis have handled the Japan assignment differently?
``Absolutely,'' Podesta says. ``He would not have rolled over and played dead.''
One place Bush claims success, Podesta notes, was on banking deregulation - but even there Podesta charges that Bush's success came at the expense of the public.
``Bush was put in charge of the task force to review banking deregulation. He essentially did a kind of free-market cheerleading session. But he completely failed to see the savings and loan crisis that was about to grow up.''
In a somewhat related assignment, Bush was assigned to reform regulation - a job that Podesta characterizes as ``slash and burn.'' The effect was mostly bad, Podesta says.
``He delayed some awfully important safety rules. They withdrew right-to-know regulations for workers dealing with hazardous chemicals. They killed a lot of auto safety regulations which have resulted in more highway fatalities. They delayed for a long time package inserts on drugs, which again was a serious health matter....
``There's a fairly long list of places where Bush essentially fronted for the chemical manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry, and others.''
Finally, Podesta zeroes in on two other issues: the choice of Dan Quayle as the vice-presidential nominee, and the Iran-contra affair.
The Quayle controversy got worked over thoroughly by the media in August, but Democrats failed to capitalize on it the way they hoped. Last week, Senator Bentsen tried to reignite those fires when he charged that giving Senator Quayle a role in national security decisions would be ``a frightening thought.''
Iran-contra also has been thoroughly aired, but Democrats still believe it is a major Bush vulnerability.
``Bush was put in charge of the task force to come up with a counter-terrorism policy,'' Podesta recalls. ``He made very tough statements about no concessions. But he sat through 17 meetings where arms-for-hostages was discussed.''
It might be argued that none of these issues has the emotional clout of Willie Horton's escape. But Podesta says a new Dukakis ad may at least partially offset the impact of the Horton incident.
The Dukakis ad recalls the case of a convicted drug dealer in Arizona. While on a federal work-furlough program, he raped a woman, then fatally stabbed her 28 times.
Podesta says Dukakis ``wanted to run a positive campaign. He wanted to lay out a vision for the country. He doesn't like personally negative campaigning. But it appears Bush has risen to the task.''