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Memo to the candidates on how to win

ATTN: Michael Dukakis After covering 17 national political conventions over the years, starting with the two in Chicago in 1956, I've seen some dramatic happenings:

Adlai Stevenson putting up for grabs the vice-presidential spot on the ticket. Mayor Richard Daley on the inside, grimacing and pointing, and the rioting on the outside. The Rockefeller confrontation of his Goldwater critics, who were booing and hissing him continuously as he made his convention speech. President Jimmy Carter chasing Sen. Edward Kennedy around the platform as he reached out for a victory hand clasp.

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But the disunity that was turned to unity at the latest Democratic convention - a melding for which you, Mr. Dukakis, must be given most of the credit - was drama of the highest order. The coming together of you and Jesse Jackson, after a split that seemed to be widening and inevitably divisive, was something of a political miracle. I'm happy I was there to see it all.

Now how do you win? If this race gets close (and I think it will), you will gain the victory if you can stand toe to toe with George Bush and prove in the eyes of the voters to be the better man. Your performance in the debates may well be decisive. You know this. This goes with being a savvy politician - particularly with being a winning politician.

But you must watch out for deriding Mr. Bush. You can make fun of the vice-president just so long and then it's going to backfire on you.

I know it was not you who did this at the convention. It was some of the other speakers. But you will have to caution them, too. These jabs were effective in Atlanta. They got people laughing. To many, Bush will always be ``Silver Foot.'' But you had better call a halt to Bush-bashing, Governor. There's a point when it becomes overkill. That's the moment when the anti-Bush jokes and jibes begin to evoke sympathy.

And watch out for overconfidence, Governor. It's a possible pitfall. Your self-assurance is most assuring to your troops - and to the voters. But be careful that with frequent appearances on television you aren't in time perceived as swaggering a bit - or as one observer wrote in the New York Times, ``sounding a bit sanctimonious.''

At this point, the polls are indicating you hold a decided edge in this race. How do you fight off what will be a furious challenge from your opponent? Continue to stress your competence. Continue being dogged. In addition, be a nice guy. Be civil. Don't talk down, and don't let your head swell.

ATTN: George Bush

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First, something picky. Can't you get some glasses that make you look more political than professorial? You aren't running for college president. Maybe something with rims?

Image changing is acceptable, you know. Dukakis had one of his eyebrows trimmed down for his speech in Atlanta. Candidates often change hair styles to win votes. One candidate, a few years back, even had a face-lift. Now appearances shouldn't be what elects or doesn't elect a president. But that's what TV has done to us. It's too bad. That's the way it is.

Image can be so deceptive. It certainly is in your case, Mr. Vice-President. I've been covering you since way back when you were deciding on whether you wanted to run for Congress. You are a considerate, decent person. That's not just my opinion. Talk to any reporter (whether he likes your views or not) and he will say the same thing: George Bush is a fine fellow, a capable fellow, a bright fellow. And, certainly, a man's man.

Yet everywhere I go I find this misconception: that George Bush is weak and foolish. That's what the Democrats say. That Bush lacks leadership qualities. That's what many Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans, are saying. The picture that voters for the most part have of you is completely off the mark. Somehow you have to change it. And superficial changes in your appearance and campaigning style do no more than help the real Bush shine through.

But the emergence of the authentic Bush won't come by lashing out at your opponent. Don't reply in kind. Stay above personalities. You could, if the Democrats won't relent on their personal attack on you, be perceived as being coolly above the battle. A personal attack is not your style. It never has been. Here's a chance to show your class.

Then stick to the issues, stressing the general health of the economy and this administration's success in nuclear arms talks. The economy. World peace. The big issues. Keep hammering away at your no-tax position. If you can somehow push Dukakis into being widely perceived as one who admits he will be raising taxes, you will have a big issue running in your favor.

Don't be bashful about your war hero role. How about a book? John F. Kennedy had a book written about his heroics. It's not too late before the fall campaign.

But right now, it is your opponent who looms large - and presidential.

In the end, the voters cast their votes for the one who they believe is going to be the better leader. Dukakis looks more like a leader to the voters at this point, Mr. Bush. Once again, to change that you must do all you can to let the real George Bush shine through.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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