Like rival suitors chasing the same bride, Michael Dukakis and George Bush crisscrossed the Midwest this week, trying to capture the region's rich electoral dowry. The key states are Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and, to a lesser extent, Missouri.
Governor Dukakis needs virtually a clean sweep of these critical battlegrounds, in most of which he is the underdog. It is a strategy that leaves very little margin for error.
Vice-President Bush, ahead in all but Michigan, according to state polls, needs only to prevent Mr. Dukakis from winning a few key contests, especially in Ohio. Mr. Bush has been in the state several times in the last week.
``We spent the week trying to build up our momentum,'' says Ed Rogers, deputy campaign manager for Bush. ``We want to make sure all our registered voters make it to the polls.''
The Republicans are surprised at how well they are doing in states they once assumed belonged to Dukakis. They will be blitzing these areas with media ads, surrogate speakers, and visits by President Reagan over the remaining few days.
The Democrats will be doing much the same thing. Jack Corrigan, director of operations for the Dukakis campaign, lists four elements in the governor's ninth-inning Midwest strategy.
Big television buys for the weekend.
One of the best field organizations ever assembled in a presidential race.
Surrogates speakers who will be flooding every available media market.
The ``Quayle factor'' - using references to the GOP vice-presidential nominee to raise doubts in voters' minds.
Senior Dukakis advisers are now hoping to be within five points of Bush in ``must win'' states on election day. The hope is that superior voter-registration and get-out-the-vote efforts will give them the edge they need.
``It's certainly possible,'' says Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University. Professor Asher thinks, however, that Dukakis must get within two or three points of Bush for the Democratic strategy to work. ``If the underlying enthusiasm isn't there in the first place, I'm not sure how far good election-day efforts get you,'' he adds.
But Dukakis has been stirring up the political passions.
A surge early in the week in some states gave Dukakis spokesman Dayton Duncan an opportunity for optimism. ``The polling numbers are not as important; it's whether you've got the movement in your direction,'' he says.
Heartened, Dukakis has been rallying the troops in stops throughout the region.
``Hard workers, not high rollers, built this country,'' he asserts on the stump. In a region that economically has been hit hard during the Reagan years, the message has some resonance.
``There is some coming home of Democrats, and some growing enthusiasm among Democratic partisans,'' Asher says. Indeed, state polls show some narrowing in Ohio.
The governor has been doing some of the best campaigning of his life, political observers say. He is warm and full of energy. His populist message is honed and sharp, and he is no longer shrinking from the ``liberal'' label.
In a few of the key state, like Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, the rate of voter participation in the black community may make the difference. Dukakis has been scheduling regular appearances before black audiences.
In a Detroit rally this week, where a group of black ministers rose to support the Democratic candidate, the crowd was electric. But much of what was said by black speakers related to black pride, including statements like ``there is only one party for blacks.'' Little was said about the governor himself.
``He's increased his energy level, he's more attractive as the underdog, and he has returned to Democratic theme of fairness,'' Asher says of Dukakis.
That helps bring back the Democratic vote, Asher says, but he adds that it remains unclear whether it will bring over the independent voters needed for victory.