In a blaze of speeches designed to win the votes of Wisconsin blue-collar workers, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis is crisscrossing the state, trying to stay ahead of rival Jesse Jackson, with promises of universal health insurance, plant-closing laws, and a war against drugs. But the problem for the governor may not be so much in the words as in the delivery. Mr. Dukakis, who has so far spurned suggestions that he pour a little passion into his speaking style, now risks the political embarrassment of losing today's primary to the Rev. Mr. Jackson in a state where only 3 percent of the potential voters are black.
While most Democrats might say ``right on'' when they hear Dukakis, the problem is many don't ``feel'' a political tingling in their toes. Union members and small farmers, waiting to hear Dukakis, said they agree with him on the issues and will probably vote for him. Yet their level of enthusiasm seemed about the same after listening to him as it was before. Dukakis doesn't lack message, he lacks the ability to energize his audiences.
``The visceral reaction may not feel like a kick in the gut,'' says Dukakis issues director Christopher Edley Jr., but the governor aims to ``leave the audience with confidence in Mike Dukakis as a leader.''
That might be all right if their initial level of conviction were high, but it isn't. It might be all right if white voters were unwilling to vote for a black candidate, but they are. And it might be all right if Dukakis were the clear front-runner, but he isn't.
``There are still a lot of people with a lot of doubts,'' says unemployed union member Carl Delaruelle, after listening to Dukakis in Green Bay.
``With Jackson,'' Milwaukee sports writer Michael Uruske says, ``if you go to a speech, you're hooked. ... He has caught a mood with the blue-colar workers.'' But Dukakis does not ``project any warmth.''
After a labor gathering in Racine, Dukakis supporter and local high school English teacher Kit Canman admitted that ``Jackson has more emotion in his message....'' Mr. Canman describes the governor's style as ``right to the point, businesslike, he's dealing with the issues, not just emotions.'' He says he thinks Dukakis will prevail with the voters because ``the crowd can recognize competence.''
``Effective communication is not all chrome and hubcaps,'' Mr. Edley explains. ``It's what's under the hood and how you take the bumps.''
Edley says ``eventually'' Dukakis will emerge on top. ``If not this Tuesday, then next Tuesday, or the Tuesday after that,'' he says. ``We have confidence that the American people will be discerning shoppers.''
In Wisconsin, Dukakis has been trying a smorgasbord of speeches. When speaking to an ethnic audience at the Serb Memorial Hall in southern Milwaukee, he used a rally approach and attacked the Reagan administration by speaking forcefully about ``good jobs at good wages,'' the need for a ``real war'' against drugs, and a host of broadsides directed at American industry. He also touts the Massachusetts plant-closing law and a bill pending there that would give all workers access to health insurance.
``This administration has walked away from the American dream ... has mortgaged our future to a bunch of defense contractors...,'' Dukakis says. ``They've turned Main Street America into a shopping mall for foreign investors. ... How dumb do they think we are?''
The governor accuses the Reagan administration of telling workers ``we don't need you anymore. Go get a job flipping hamburgers [and] ... tell your kids to become stockbrokers.''
``We're going to get control of the merger and acquisition binge that's gobbling up capital, tearing corporations apart like erector sets, making millions for a few, and leaving the average working men and women ... holding the bag.''
No one seems to know whether the Dukakis message is grabbing and holding the blue-collar voters he needs to win the state. A loss to Jackson here, while far from fatal, would further muddy the political waters for the governor and the party.