Election '88 winds up today in a burst of excitement. The race for the White House is getting closer. Crowds are bigger, more vocal. Both sides are saturating the airwaves with TV ads. And the candidates are crossing the finish line at top speed.
During these final few days, the spotlight shone brightly on Michael Dukakis. The Democratic candidate, long overshadowed by George Bush, finally hit his stride in the closing hours.
Governor Dukakis found a theme - ``On Your Side'' - that resonated well with the voters. He struck back at the negative ads being run by the GOP. And he finally seemed to learn an essential rule of campaigning: repeat the same message over and over.
The newly aggressive Dukakis, often working in shirt-sleeves, tried to put the vice-president on the defensive for a change:
``Mr. Bush took a furlough from the truth by saying that he was on the side of working American families.... Who's he kidding? ...They have stolen from our children in running up some of the biggest deficits in history,'' he told audiences.
Bush, who led by about 12 points in most polls a week ago, watched that shrink to only five points (48 percent to 43 percent) in an NBC News poll released Sunday. NBC said large numbers of blue-collar voters were returning to the Democratic ticket.
``The undecideds are moving our way,'' claimed Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. ``It's a dead heat.''
But Robert Teeter, the Bush pollster, told ``Meet the Press'' that private GOP polls show Bush nine or 10 points ahead.
Over the weekend, the vice-president dogged Dukakis's footsteps in the pivotal Northeast and Midwest. He got enthusiastic help from his friend, Ronald Reagan, who worked the crowds in states like Michigan, and denounced the ``Doomocrats.''
Mr. Reagan, who is travelling 20,000 miles through 15 states to aid his vice-president, concludes his efforts today with rallies in critical California.
Clearly, Bush is favored to win. But Dukakis is banking on a thread-the-needle strategy that he hopes will pull off a Harry S. Truman-style upset.
Both candidates will concentrate in the final moments on the West Coast, where Dukakis must capture California. The governor also worked Washington State, where he has a 10-point lead, and Oregon, where he trails by a tiny margin.
In the East, Dukakis must carry New York, his best large state, Massachusetts, where he leads, and Pennsylvania, where he trails slightly.
Dukakis also needs a powerful showing in the Midwest in Michigan and Illinois. Then he must pick up Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, West Virginia, Vermont, Maryland, and a scattering of other states to be in contention.
Even then it will be difficult. Horace Busby, a veteran analyst, contended from the beginning of this campaign that Dukakis faced a tremendous handicap in 1988 because of what Mr. Busby calls the ``electoral lock.''
Since 1968, voters in the Sunbelt and Rocky Mountain states have voted again and again for the Republican ticket. This vast region gives the GOP such a large base in the Electoral College that any Republican candidate has a built-in advantage, Busby argues.
Democrats can win only in two ways. Either they must break the lock, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976 by sweeping the South. Or they must overwhelm the GOP in most of the other states - a tough task which has forced Dukakis into a do-or-die strategy across the northern tier of the country.
Even before the campaign ends, analysts are wondering if the outcome could have been different if Dukakis had acted quicker. Only in the final week has he really found his voice.
His theme: economic populism. His argument: that average Americans are overlooked by Bush and the GOP, who favor those on Easy Street over those on Main Street.
He chides Bush for being weak on the the drug war, weak on ethics, weak on foreign dictators and crooked government contractors. And the crowds love it.
Meanwhile, Bush has a twin strategy. He continues to shoot at Dukakis's record in Massachusetts and at Dukakis himself - ``he's out in deep left field.''
At the same time, Bush associates himself with ``family, faith, neighborhood,'' and asks for ``a mandate for the mainstream values of America.'' He vows: no new taxes, and a strong defense.
Bush hopes those policies sell as well in 1988 as they did in 1984 for Mr. Reagan.