Down, but not out, Michael Dukakis has bounced off the ropes and is focusing on the industrial North and Midwest in the final round of election '88. Having abandoned his 50-state strategy, the governor's advisers are now looking at a few big states, like Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri, to win in the electoral college.
``These key states have assumed battleground proportions in this campaign,'' says Dukakis senior advisor Kirk O'Donnell. The governor's strong economic message ``will resonate in the Midwest,'' he says.
The Massachusetts governor worked the region hard last week, and plans to spend a lot more time here in the closing days before the election. His goal? To portray Vice-President George Bush as a man relaxing on ``Easy Street,'' while Dukakis fights for the forgotten Americans on ``Main Street.''
Senior advisors say internal polls show this new message is effective. But is there time for it to work?
``I think the people have made up their minds,'' says Michigan political consultant Jerry Favorman. ``All the money they are going to spend on advertising is a waste of money.''
Linda Hartke, Dukakis's midwest field director, sees it differently. ``It's very contestable,'' she says. ``States like Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin certainly are states we can and plan to win. Missouri has been a real bellwether state for this campaign. In the last three months we have come from 9 points down to within 1 point.''
Other polls in the region do show some recent tightening, say analysts, but Bush is still favored.
Predictions that the race to the White House would end on the high road appear to be out the window. Dukakis is too far behind in the polls not to take risks, and the support for Bush is too soft for him to relax. Meanwhile, voters continue to complain about the quality of the candidates and their campaigns.
``Who is he kidding?,'' Dukakis asked an audience in Rockford, Ill., ridiculing Bush's assertion that capital gains tax reduction would create jobs. ``What are they going to do, hire a second butler, or a lifeguard for the pool? This isn't a jobs program, this is Halloween come early. It's a treat for the rich and a trick for the rest of us.''
Dukakis pushes such populist buttons as health care and more jobs. In Illinois, he blamed the vice president for deaths of industrial workers because of Bush's role in ``quashing safety regulations.'' And at almost every stop Dukakis points out how the trade deficit has skyrocketed under GOP leadership, and how foreigners are buying up America ``on the cheap.''
Dukakis advisors predict that a daily fare of this aggressive attack strategy will whittle Bush's lead in the polls, pushing some of the important toss-up states into the Dukakis column.
``People are very afraid and getting cautious,'' says Mr. Favorman, the Michigan political consultant. ``Almost everybody you talk to is afraid of the economic effects coming after the election.''
Asked if that fear is a plus for Democrats he replied: ``That's intellectually correct, but that's not the way it's working. Dukakis demands that the voters take risks. And there is not a willingness to take risks when the [candidate] ... has not been good about explaining what he wants to do.''