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GOP readies for tough fight against Dukakis

AS Republicans leave New Orleans after all the balloon drops and hoopla, they admit they face a tough opponent in Michael Dukakis. Partisan to the core, convention delegates feel they have the issues and the strongest presidential candidate on their side. But several ``macro'' factors are seen to be working on behalf of the Democratic nominee:

After eight years of a Republican administration, the American people want change.

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The Democrats continue to be the majority party, and the independents and Reagan Democrats have to be won over again.

Governor Dukakis is solidly in control of his party and leading supporters who see an opening in '88 and are champing at the bit to go through it.

Experienced GOP analysts add that Dukakis is a strong candidate and that the Bush forces would make a mistake in running a campaign based largely on the Democratic nominee's negatives.

``Dukakis obviously has created very strong persona of a man who is competent, a man who has integrity, a man who would get things done and run a government effectively,'' says Edward Rollins, who managed the Reagan campaign in '84. ``I don't think he can tear down Dukakis's competence ... it's just going to be hard in two months to ... convince voters that he's a lousy governor.''

George Bush can be projected as a leader who would run the government better, Mr. Rollins says, and Dukakis's ``vulnerabilities'' on foreign policy and other issues can be addressed. But if the Bush campaign simply tries to destroy Dukakis ``you can lose this thing.''

Passionate convention Republicans are reluctant to air anything but criticism of the Democratic contender. But there is an underlying concern that Republicans are battling uphill against the so-called historical cycle.

``It's going to be a tough election,'' says Bob Walker, a US congressman from Lancaster, Pa. ``Dukakis's strength is that he's riding a wave in the country oriented to change and people aren't listening closely to what he's saying.''

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Winfield Dunn, a past governor of Tennessee and Bush steering committee chairman there, makes the same point. ``There's a natural inclination to want to turn to another group, to `throw the rascals out,''' he says. ``That superficial mentality is a part of the makeup of a free society. The Bush record is so strong that I believe it will counteract that trend. But it will be a long, hard race.''

The theme struck throughout this 34th GOP convention has been ``issues.'' Frustrated by Dukakis's stress on personal qualities and concerned about Bush's image, the Republicans are struggling to focus the campaign on a comparison of the two candidates' positions on such questions as national security and taxes.

If they can only show up Dukakis's ``true colors,'' say the departing delegates, voters will go for George Bush.

``Dukakis is very polished and very consistent,'' comments Rep. Tom Ridge of Erie, Pa. ``They have camouflaged things and done it very well. It's a calculated strategy.''

Pennsylvania will be a close race, says Congressman Ridge, and a key to winning will be to remind people about the Carter years. The tendency of Americans after such a long and ``successful'' administration is to forget the past, he notes.

``People have forgotten the high unemployment rate and the high interest rates,'' says Ridge. ``It's very difficult to sell success - especially when the Democrats are much better at selling doom and gloom. That's why we have to be better at selling success.''

At the same time it is grudgingly acknowledged that Dukakis is not a Jimmy Carter. Spencer Leak, a black delegate and a Cook County, Ill., official, sees the Democratic standard bearer as ``more positive'' in his approach to the campaign process and more astute politically than Carter.

``He's an excellent politician,'' says Mr. Leak. ``His strengths are the fact that he is a technocrat and the public perception of him as someone who gets things done.''

But, Leak says wryly, Dukakis also has ``the capacity to be on both sides of every issue.''

Because the Republicans are the minority party, delegates say, the GOP campaign must hammer at Dukakis's ``minuses.'' ``We have to show the American people what the Dukakis record is,'' comments Evelyn McPhail, chairman of the Mississippi delegation.

Ms. McPhail concedes that Dukakis has ``good political skills'' and is a ``personable candidate.'' Bush, too, is personable but, she says, he does not have the personality of Ronald Reagan.

``So it's more difficult to appeal to ordinary people,'' McPhail remarks. ``We have to show that the issues are so important because the two are so far apart.''

Party workers are taking nothing for granted. They understand the vicissitudes of an election campaign. Unexpected developments can quickly shift public opinion.

Bill Cabaniss, chairman of the Alabama delegation, says he runs a political race ``scared.'' ``You can't afford to overlook anything,'' he says. ``Voters can change their minds in a hurry and things can just go wrong.''

In Dukakis, Mr. Cabaniss adds, the Republicans face a ``formidable opponent'' who has carefully crafted his public image: ``There's a perception after the Atlanta convention that he is a moderate, which he is not, that he's a strong manager, which I question, and that he has a better vision of what the country needs than George Bush, which I think is wrong.''

Public apathy is seen as anther factor to be overcome. James Risch, an Idaho state senator, says the American people are not aware that a new government will be elected in a little more than 80 days.

``There's only a short period of time for people to absorb the differences between the candidates,'' Mr. Risch says. ``The advantage Dukakis has is to promise everything to everyone without a record to stand on and defend.''

``It won't be a cakewalk.''

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