IT was less than four months before the 1988 American presidential election, and the public opinion polls were startling. Michael Dukakis, the new Democratic nominee, had opened a mile-wide lead over his Republican rival, George Bush.
The polls, apparently, were no fluke. A survey taken in late July by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal gave Mr. Dukakis a 17-point margin. A Gallup Poll taken at the same time also showed Dukakis exactly 17 points ahead of Mr. Bush.
Yet, just 15 weeks later, Bush solidly drubbed Dukakis by 8 percent - a turnaround of 25 points. How did Bush, in such a short span, sweep the popular vote and win all but 10 of the states and the District of Columbia?
Tubby Harrison, a Democratic consultant who advised Dukakis in 1988, says the reason is obvious: "I don't think the people trust us to run the country."
Mr. Harrison suggests that public doubts about the Democrats run so deep that even when Republicans are stumbling, voters hesitate to turn the reins over to Democrats. Looking at today's depressed economy, he observes:
"The Democrats make the mistake of saying Bush is bad on the economy. The public knows that. They think the country is on the wrong track, and they give Bush low marks, [but] they turn around and say, 'Thank God the Democrats aren't in, because they'd do even worse!
Spendthrifts, taxers, and regulators - that's the Democratic image burned into the public consciousness. The last time Democrats ran the White House, the United States had runaway inflation, 17 percent interest rates, and fuel shortages caused in part by excessive federal controls.
It was a mess, and it put Republican Ronald Reagan into the Oval Office by a landslide in 1980.
Yet analysts say that over the past 20 or 25 years, it is more than the spendthrift label which hurt Democratic prospects for the White House.
Analysts point to a variety of factors and causes: the cold war (people trusted the GOP to be tough); racial issues (Democrats alienated white Southerners); special-interest groups (Democrats seemed beholden to everyone from feminists to gays); leadership (Democrats often seemed weak); political skills (Republicans seem to be the masters of 30-second TV spots and glitzy media events).
Dukakis, interviewed recently at his new office in the political science department at Northeastern University in Boston, admits that, in his campaign against Bush, he was badly outmaneuvered politically.
"We blew it," he says. By May, 1988, Dukakis knew he would be the nominee. But he spent months putting together his campaign strategy, while Republicans immediately began hammering at his record as governor. For five months, through September, he was like a defenseless boxer with his arms dangling at his sides.
"It wasn't until early October [that] we finally began to hit our stride, to encapsulate ... a theme that connected with people. And it was just too late," he admits. "Ultimately, I'm the guy who has to take responsibility for that."
Dukakis says he lost for two reasons. One, his failure to respond to Bush's attacks. Two, his failure to "capture the burden and the angst and the growing concern on the part of middle-class Americans about what was happening to them."
But analysts say Dukakis was merely the latest in a long line of Democrats to be badly thrashed by Republicans. The reasons seem ingrained, perhaps in the system itself.
Hugh Winebrenner, a professor at Drake University and an expert on the Iowa presidential caucuses, says: "When Barry Goldwater [the 1964 Republican nominee] took the horrible beating in 1964, it demonstrated to the right wing of the Republican Party that there weren't many of them around. It allowed the more moderate elements, I think, to gain a strong foothold, and perhaps dominate the party since then."
A FEW years later, Democrats moved to the other extreme with George McGovern, and sustained a similar thrashing.
"I thought that would be a cleansing factor for the Democratic Party, just as the Goldwater debacle was on the Republican Party," Dr. Winebrenner says. "But it did not seem to work that way. They have continued to nominate people who are perceived by the general electorate to be too far to the left."
Austin Ranney, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley and a veteran of Democratic politics, says methods for picking Democratic presidential candidates cripple the party every four years.
Dr. Ranney says it is incorrect to talk about the Democratic Party there is no such thing." There are the "presidential Democrats," who espouse liberalism and constantly lose elections, and there are the "congressional Democrats," who adjust their politics region by region, and who constantly win elections.
Hemmed in by rules which require that every group be represented at national conventions, Ranney says, the presidential party is made up of feminists, blacks, gays, labor unionists, and hispanics who "care more about their particular causes than the party."
Weakened by factional in-fighting, the party cannot compete with the same strength and unity as the Republicans, who are much more cohesive, he says.
Dukakis, however, doesn't fully agree. Every party has factions, including the Republicans. While Dukakis had to deal with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who demanded a big role at the Democratic convention, Bush had to deal with Pat Robertson, the religious leader and conservative candidate for president.
With a better-run campaign, Democrats might have pulled out a narrow victory in 1988, Dukakis insists. He points out that Democratic representatives and senators have learned how to fend off the worst kinds of smear-tactics, and win. He only blames himself for not doing so before it was too late. Part One of this series ran Monday, Jan. 27. On Thursday, Jan. 29, the final part examines whether the Democrats can beat President Bush in 1992.