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Dukakis at the bat: Babe Ruth - or Casey?

The Duke is in a slump. After knocking the ball out of the park at the Atlanta convention, Michael Dukakis has failed to connect in recent weeks.

George Bush, limbering up his arm for the fall campaign, is whizzing fastballs and sliders past Governor Dukakis with growing regularity.

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Mr. Bush, delivering his toughest pitch, charges Dukakis with being soft on defense. Whiff!

Bush blasts Dukakis for Massachusetts' prison-furlough program for violent criminals. Whiff!

Bush derides Dukakis for vetoing a bill that would require the pledge of allegiance in public schools. Whiff!

To the consternation of Democrats, Dukakis seems almost complacent in the face of the hard-throwing Bush. Instead of launching a counterattack, yesterday Dukakis wrapped up six days of low-key politicking within Massachusetts - one state he's bound to win anyway.

Robert Beckel, who ran Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign, says Dukakis must pick up the pace.

Yet even Ted Williams, that one-time Boston Red Sox superstar, had slumps, and experts say Dukakis's problems could soon fade.

Despite Bush's attacks, Dukakis remains within striking distance in all the major polls. The lift Bush got from the Republican convention has faded somewhat, and the two contenders are expected to be nearly even by Labor Day.

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Political scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia notes that ``campaigns are like roller coasters, and there's nothing unusual about the August doldrums. One side always gets it.''

``There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Dukakis candidacy,'' Dr. Sabato says. He observes that Dukakis has bounced back before - as from his third-place finish in Iowa behind Richard Gephardt and Paul Simon. He also rallied after his jarring defeat in the Michigan caucuses by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But Sabato cautions that Dukakis must come up with answers to Bush's charges on the issues, like defense and crime. The question, says Sabato, is: ``Will those answers be convincing?''

Not everyone is so sanguine about Dukakis's prospects. Claibourne Darden Jr., a veteran Atlanta pollster, says the governor failed to capitalize on a major opening in recent weeks. Mr. Darden says:

``During a time when Republicans are critically wounded by `Pretty Boy Quayle,' Dukakis can't catch up, can't move. He's dead in the water.

``Why? He was moving fine for months. Why has his program, which has not changed, become impotent?''

Darden says the reason can be found in the Republican convention:

``Dukakis was badly, badly, badly wounded. Speaker after speaker at the GOP convention attacked Dukakis with broad concepts that were ``condensed down to the eighth-grade level.'' The speakers ``used reinforcement over and over again. They told people that Dukakis is not patriotic, that he vetoed the pledge of allegiance bill, is a big social spender, doesn't tell the truth, lets rapists and murderers out from prison on the weekends, and that Boston Harbor is so dirty it reminds you of the Bay of Pigs.''

Dukakis's main message - good jobs at good wages - remains unchanged. But it has lost its potency, says Darden, because ``the Republicans degenerated and partially collapsed Dukakis's positive image.''

Dukakis, meeting this week with the press, admitted there are problems.

``Three weeks ago we could do no wrong,'' he observed. But after the GOP convention, he conceded, it was ``a little difficult'' to get his message through.

The same day, in a speech, he tried to fend off one Bush attack about the pledge of allegiance: ``The American people aren't interested in a debate over which one of us loves his country the most. We all love this country. There should be no debate over that.''

What worries Dukakis aides is Bush's newfound ability to control the agenda of the campaign. It is now being fought on Bush's terms, on Bush's strengths. Dukakis must turn that around - something his staff hopes will happen in a campaign swing to Washington State, Oregon, and California starting today.

As Darden says: ``Dukakis needs to take control. He needs to establish a leadership position in the campaign. Previously, it was Bush who had that problem. But during the Republican convention, we had a role reversal. And who in the world would have thought that would happen? It appears that the only person more vanilla than Bush is Dukakis.''

But G.Donald Ferree, another polling expert, cautions against overreacting to current events. Public opinion is still very ephemeral, he says. Bush may be looking strong today, but that could change almost overnight.

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