way outside the Student Union at the University of California’s Los Angeles campus, Tim Stroh raised a banner venting his frustra-
tions with the current presidential race. In large red letters, the 20-year-old political science major had painted across a strip of tom
bed sheet: “We want to know.” What Stroh and thousands of other UCLA students specifically wanted to know was why—with last week’s presidential debate due to start within hours next door in the Pauley basketball pavilion—the organizers had permitted only a handful of students to attend. But his anger seemed to reflect a sense of disenchantment gathering strength across the country. Less than three weeks before the Nov. 8 election, more and more voters are expressing dismay at finding themselves—and the issues that concern them— ignored in a campaign that has increasingly become a battle of televised image making. Said Stroh: “It’s as if we’re not important, as if we’re just a backdrop.”
Rarely has the image war been more apparent than in the campaign’s last major television event—the second and final debate be-
tween Vice-President George Bush and Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. After the first debate last month in North Carolina, most critics agreed that Dukakis had won. But surveys also revealed that, while viewers admired the Massachusetts governor’s performance, many of them did not seem to like his personality. For their rematch, Dukakis displayed a readier grin and a toned-down intensity. “I think I’m a reasonably likable guy,” he said. “But I’m also a very serious guy. I think the presidency of the United States is a very serious office.” Still, by repeatedly casting himself as a president who would make “tough choices,” Dukakis appeared to have once again failed the so-called likability test—and with it, perhaps, his last clear opportunity to save his
faltering candidacy. As William Schneider, an analyst with Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, commented, “What he was saying was: ‘If I’m president I’m going to make you eat your broccoli.’ People don’t rush to the polls for that.”
Across the country, post-debate surveys showed that a newly confident and coherent Bush had won the televised personality test. In
a Los Angeles Times poll, 522 viewers rated the vice-president the winner by a stunning 47 to 26 per cent. And by week’s end, another Ti mes poll showed that Bush had translated the victory into a 10-point lead. That verdict was a blow to Democrats who had counted on Dukakis’s seasoned debating skills to turn the campaign around. The governor, who enjoyed a 16point lead in the polls last July, was trailing Bush by six points going into the debate. And commentators agreed that Dukakis had foiled to land the verbal knockout that he needed.
Dukakis’s inability to score a debating breakthrough may have been a result of his general approach to the encounter. By trying to project a softer, more human image, he allowed Bush to seize the offensive. At the same time, he
missed a chance to build that very image in the opening seconds of the 90-minute show. Asked whether he would rethink his opposition to the death penalty if his wife,Kitty,were raped and murdered, Dukakis passed up the chance to inject his emotions, instead launching into a rambling ritualistic answer about fighting crime and the drug war. At a media briefing the morning after the debate, Dukakis’s subdued chief strategist John Sasso acknowledged, “We’re down a little bit. There’s no question about that.” Meanwhile, some of Bush’s advisers tried to play down their exuberance. But his campaign manager, James Baker, declared, “We closed the sale for a lot of undecideds.” Schneider, for one, says that Dukakis’s lag in the polls cannot be explained simply by his mediocre debate performance or relative lack of charisma. At a time when a majority of Americans are basking in an autumn of economic well-being, they point out that his tough
proposals for lowering the budget deficit— with cuts in defence spending—are proving unpalatable. In contrast, Bush has offered the promise of continued prosperity and a maintenance of the status quo.
There are few areas where that undertaking is more reassuring than in California, which strategists from both parties have pegged as the pivotal battleground. The most populous state in the union, its 47 electoral college votes loom as the prize most likely to decide the election. In fact, as it mirrors the trends and tactical considerations influencing voters across the country, California is taking shape as a microcosm of the national race. Said Bill Lacy, who is directing Bush’s state effort: “California
is closer to being a nation unto itself than any other state.”
Its population includes Hollywood liberals such as Jane Fonda and her assemblyman husband, former war protester Tom Hayden, as well as the hard-core conservatives of Los Angeles’s suburban Orange County who launched a landmark tax revolt named Proposition 13 a decade ago. But despite the majority of registered Democrats on its electoral rolls, the state has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964 and it has sent two presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, to the White House. Last week its public opinion polls—echoing those in 21 other states—gave Bush a slim margin.
One reason, according to Ken Grubbs, editorial page director of the Orange County Register—the chief voice for the heart
of Reagan’s staunchest conservative constituency—is the frontier spirit of many of those who inhabit the state’s sprawling middle-class suburbs. Like his own father, who moved to the county from Kansas 26 years ago,
“these are people who fancied themselves pioneers,” Grubbs said. “They came west in search of opportunity and they found it.
They bought their first property and they were very protective of it, and any sort of liberal biggovernment approach that threatened to take it away was feared.”
Those fears have spread to other groups who have followed them westward in search of the Golden State’s promise and now see Bush as the guardian of their prosperity. Indeed, Dukakis’s repeated vows to cut the defence budget in last week’s debate earned a chilly reception from many in a state that has benefited greatly from Reagan’s eight-year military spending increases. Last year alone, the
Pentagon awarded $29.7 billion to California military contractors—the state’s leading industry. And shock waves rippled along the coast last week when Congress passed legislation to close obsolete military facilities, a handful of them among the state’s 104 bases. Said Charlie Black, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign: “In California, they understand that if you’re talking about cutting the defence budget, it means you’re putting them out of work.”
Other groups have also voiced allegiance to Reagan-era prosperity. Among them: many of the Vietnamese immigrants who arrived after the fall of Saigon 13 years ago and now make up about seven per cent of the population. In the Orange County town of Santa Ana, in a stretch known as Little Saigon, Vietnamese letters stud the storefronts of modem shopping malls built under the arches of ornate, red-tiled pagodas. But the window of the Tu Quinh video
store is plastered with a rare Anglo note: dozens of Bush-Quayle signs. According to Stephen Dang, the owner’s 19-year-old son, his parents, like most other Vietnamese, have become Republicans as they worked their way into the middle class. Said Dang: “Under Reagan, a lot of the people around here have prospered. They like how it has been going, so they want it to remain Republican.”
But among California’s minorities, no group has been more assiduously courted by both candidates than its 6.6 million Hispanics. They make up one-third of the nation’s total Hispanic population—and 22 per cent of the state’s population. Dukakis and his running mate, Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, have made repeated swings through the barrios of East Los Angeles, displaying their fluency in Spanish. But
Bush has countered with the weapons of incumbency. In August, Reagan named Lauro Cavazos, a former president of the medical school at Texas Tech University, as secretary of education—making good in advance on Bush’s campaign promise to appoint the first Hispanic to the cabinet.
Bush’s opposition to abortion also plays well in a community that is largely Catholic. And his television commercials taking a tough line against crime have proved a hit in areas terrorized by a wave of brutal gang wars, which so far this year have claimed 174 lives. In fact, as an increasing number of Hispanics have climbed the economic ladder, they have become more conservative.
Los Angeles councilman Richard Alatorre has repeatedly warned the Democrats that they should no longer take the Hispanic vote for granted. Alatorre’s concerns reflect those of Democrats across the state, who watched
Dukakis’s momentum evaporate when his Boston-based staff decided to shutter its California offices on June 8, the day after his sweep of the state’s Democratic primary. On Labor Day, when a new crew moved in to reactivate the effort, they found themselves without precinct lists or even phone lines. Said Alatorre: “There was a lapse of five or six weeks, and in that time, we lost a lot of ground.”
Meanwhile, Lacy had built the entire Bush organization from nothing in a state that had been considered Reagan’s private preserve but scarcely knew his vice-president. In a region where most of the population lives within an hour’s drive of the beach, he attacked Dukakis’s record on the environment with an advertising campaign borrowed from the state’s Republican governor, George Deukmejian.
Deukmejian had won the 1986 governor’s race by accusing his opponent, Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley, of failing to clean up Santa Monica’s polluted harbor. Said Lacy: “One of the strongest pitches you can make to conservative women in Orange County is the Boston Harbor issue. Everybody’s an environmentalist out here.”
In an attempt to turn the tide, the Democrats are now mounting a massive get-out-thevote movement. It is patterned on one used by Democratic Senator Alan Cranston two years ago to retain his seat after a bitter $24-million media battle. But most analysts declared that it may already be too late. They predicted that the decisive moment of the 1988 election may well have been a 90-minute TV performance in a city known as Tinseltown, where Michael Dukakis failed to become a star.
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