In the opulent ballroom of Los Angeles’s Biltmore Hotel, a sense of anticlimax prevailed. Beneath ornate frescos, a banner proclaimed it “An American celebration.” But the party balloons refused to budge out of their overhead netting. And when a victory that had seemed inevitable was announced, the enthusiasm of the crowd was decidedly restrained. In fact, even before the polls had closed in last week’s California primary—the final contest in a gruelling fourmonth process that had begun in the snow-covered cornfields of Iowa —Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis had already won the 2,081 delegates he needed to wrap up the Democratic presidential nomination.
But at the very moment that Dukakis was cautioning his supporters to think about the “tests” they would have to face before the Nov. 8 election, his defeated rival, Jesse Jackson, was presiding over his own celebration in a hotel ballroom blocks away.
Although he lost all four of last week’s primaries—finishing with 1,105 delegates, compared to Dukakis’s 2,308—Jackson refused to concede the nomination and served notice that he intended to increase the difficulty of the governor’s first and most delicate test: uniting the racially divided party at next month’s nominating convention in Atlanta. Said Norman Ornstein of Washington’s conservative American Enterprise Institute: “Now Dukakis has to safely navigate through the convention. And how he does it will be seen as a metaphor for his ability to pull his party together.”
Vowing to continue campaigning
and to actively court the remaining 644 Democratic superdelegates — mainly elected officials—who will vote at the convention, Jackson made it clear that he would challenge the rules for delegate selection. And he also increased the pressure on Dukakis to offer him the vice-presidential slot on the Democratic ticket. Still refusing to say whether he would accept the job,
Jackson claimed, “I have earned consideration for that position.” Both moves merely underlined the muscle that the black preacher was flexing. He announced plans to solidify the support that he had generated during the campaign in a new “progressive” political action committee that would make its strength felt in Atlanta, as well as in coming elections. Said Jackson: “This is a declaration. We’ve created a new force in American politics. And we’re here to stay.”
But Dukakis faced other challenges that were equally daunting. As the governor flew to Boston to escort his wife, Kitty, home from the hospitalsix days after the removal of two herniated discs from her neck—his Republican rival, Vice-President George Bush, gave him a foretaste of what was expected to be a bitter fall campaign. Speaking in Houston, Bush attempted to shrink Dukakis’s 13point lead in the polls by launching a searing attack on the governor as a free-spending liberal. While Bush aides openly called Dukakis a “wimp”—the very term critics have applied to Bush—the vice-president told his enthusiastic Texas audience that Dukakis would raise taxes and release murderers from jail. Dukakis, he added, had acquired his “flawed” foreign policy views in “Harvard yard’s boutique,” as he called the bastion of the eastern liberal establishment.
The bitter attack signalled an early start to the general election campaign, which traditionally does not begin until after Labor Day. But claiming that “it’s a whole new ball gamespring training is over,” Bush argued, “There’s no reason to wait for the World Series till we start swinging.” Still, new tests many Republicans cau-
tioned that his assault
could backfire—as it has on other candidates who resorted to negative campaigning in the primaries. Agreed Dukakis’s communications director, Leslie Dach: “Americans aren’t interested in mudslinging and tearing down. They want to hear about George Bush’s vision for the future and his record. How long will they have to wait for that?”
Indeed, the major criticism dogging the vice-president is that he has failed to define his own identity. And when
he did attempt to step out of the shadow of Ronald Reagan last week in California, even some members of his own party labelled the move opportunism. After earlier expressing support for offshore oil drilling, with environmental safeguards, the former Texas oilman appeared to change his mind on a two-day visit to California where he faced a powerful environmental movement. But Bush hedged even that attempt to chart a new course.
One day he vowed to protect “the national treasure of the California coastline.” The next, he talked of proceeding with “environmentally sound, esthetically reasonable offshore drilling,” adding, “I am not one who wants to shut down that part of our important energy base at all.”
Then, on a live television interview with ABC’s Ted Koppel,
Bush appeared to undercut his aggressive attempts to disassociate himself from administration scandals when he had to apologize for referring to the interviewer as Dan—an apparent reference to CBS News anchor Dan Rather, with whom he clashed in a Jan. 25 interview.
Even Bush’s efforts to paint Dukakis as a liberal fell flat—helped along by right-wing columnist George Will. Questioning Dukakis before a convention of ABC executives in Los Angeles, Will charged that Dukakis was a conservative at heart. And Dukakis—who has clearly been happy to distance himself from special-interest groups
associated with the Democratic left wing—seemed to welcome the label. Said Dukakis: “I was always taught a conservative paid his bills. You don’t run up red ink. The gang in the White House aren’t conservative.”
With that curious exchange, Dukakis seemed to be appealing to many centrist Democrats who have defected to vote for Reagan —and who could be tempted by a Republican moderate
such as Bush. But it also underlined his dilemma now as he attempts to appease the Democratic left, which has found a passionate new voice in Jackson. Indeed, among those listening to Dukakis’s declaration was Canadianborn actress Margot Kidder, who has spent the past three months campaigning for Jackson. Kidder pointed
out that labels were a matter of perspective. “Here, people keep calling me a flaming radical,” she said. “But we’re trying to get integrated into the platform things that my father in Canada, who considers himself an archconservative, regards as very normal.” Kidder said that unless Dukakis adopted some of those policies, thousands of Jackson’s supporters—including many blacks—could also register their protest by not voting. Dukakis himself attempted to mollify Jackson’s constituency with a surreptitious midnight visit to his rival’s hotel suite the night before the California vote, arriving by a back door and a freight elevator. But while seeking Jackson’s support in the general election campaign, Dukakis is continuing to insist that he had no obligation to make Jackson his running mate.
As the convention approaches, Dukakis clearly cannot risk alienating those disparate groups—all essential to a Democratic victory—who will be looking to Jackson for their signals in the coming month. Said Kidder: “It’s not just Jesse Jackson. There are seven million people who voted for him. You have to understand the power and the passion of our campaign.” In fact, unless Dukakis can harness both that power and that passion, his victory last week could prove short-lived indeed.
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