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Bush gaining with pivotal voter groups

George Bush has hit his stride in the Republican drive to hold the White House. Although public-opinion polls are yielding mixed results, Mr. Bush is rapidly gaining ground among the same key groups that once put Ronald Reagan into office.

On the campaign trail, the vice-president's strategy is attack, attack, attack. His aggressive campaign has driven up his ratings, particularly among men, conservatives, and the well-to-do. (Dukakis's defense issue blitz, Page 7.)

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The Bush offensive intensified yesterday as he struck at the heart of Michael Dukakis's strength, his record as governor of Massachusetts.

``There is no `Massachusetts Miracle,''' Bush charged in a speech to the Commonwealth Club here. ``Under my opponent, taxing and spending has increased more than in any other state.''

Under Governor Dukakis, ``Massachusetts has piled up a $7.4 billion debt.

``Under my opponent, Massachusetts has lost 26,000 manufacturing jobs since 1983 - more than any other state in the country. He is one of the biggest manufacturing job losers in America.''

That kind of hard-nosed politicking has helped Bush make rapid gains in every region. Even in the Northeast, where he was once considered weak, he is leading Mr. Dukakis in some polls.

The vice-president, who was often tense and tentative during the primaries, now seems relaxed and confident. His message, a distillation of his convention speech, promotes a strong defense, family values, education, jobs, law and order, and what he calls a ``gentler, kinder'' America.

The message is hitting home. It is increasing doubts about Dukakis, while making Bush seem a stronger leader.

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The rapid shift in public opinion has confused pollsters, whose surveys are unusually contradictory.

This week, two major surveys - Gallup and CBS/New York Times - reported Bush ahead of Dukakis by 8 points. Another survey by Louis Harris put Bush ahead by 5 points, and one by CNN/USA Today put him ahead by 2 points.

But during the same week, a Los Angeles Times poll reported the race dead-even (47 percent for each candidate), while an ABC/Washington Post survey gave Dukakis a 3-point edge. A Roper poll for Maryland Public Television gave Dukakis an even bigger, 6-point lead.

Press secretary Sheila Tate of the Bush campaign says the polls simply reflect the ``fluidity'' of the race.

Yet even with the mixed results, experts are confident that the campaign is beginning to take definite shape. Further, they say that behind the scenes, Bush's position is steadily getting stronger.

As evidence, they point to four things:

1.Key voter groups.

Bush's most urgent goal in September was to solidify his strength with traditional Republican voters, such as conservatives, men, Protestants, young voters, the wealthy, college graduates, small-business people, and Southerners.

With the month half over, he appears to be succeeding. The Harris poll reports Bush support up by 25 points among white Protestants, 27 points among retailers, 17 points among college graduates, and 11 points among men.

2.Dukakis's negatives.

Bush needed to raise doubts about Dukakis. He is also succeeding there.

The vice-president's speeches are sprinkled with references to ``the liberal governor from Massachusetts.'' He talks about Dukakis's ``untested foreign policy views,'' and denounces Dukakis as naive on military policy.

The governor, who once enjoyed highly favorable ratings, is now viewed unfavorably by 30 to 40 percent of the voters.

Originally, Dukakis said the main criterion for selecting a new president should be the ``competence'' of the two men. Now even that qualification appears to be running in Bush's favor. The CBS/New York Times poll finds that voters regard Bush as more competent by a 51-to-32 margin.

3.The Bush message.

Bush endlessly repeats his basic themes about defense, jobs, crime, and family values. Although reporters tire of hearing it, it plays well with the crowds.

There are two basic parts to that message. First, Bush urges voters to stick with the good parts of the Reagan years - prosperity, jobs, low inflation, lower taxes, strong defense. Second, he promises to adjust policies to meet changing times in the environment, international trade, and education.

Bush advisers are aware that the public favors change - but not too much. Bush is trying to walk a fine line that retains the good from the Reagan years, while looking toward the future.

4.The Dukakis message - or lack of one.

Bush is being helped by the absence of a concise, strong message coming from the Dukakis campaign.

During most of the last month, Dukakis was thrown on the defensive. The governor spends valuable time answering Bush charges that he is weak on defense, opposes the pledge of allegiance in public classrooms, favors prison furloughs for first-degree murderers and rapists, and would raise taxes on the middle class.

Meanwhile, Bush remains free to go after Dukakis strongholds. His campaign staff digs up awkward tidbits about the Dukakis record, such as his call for a boycott of California table grapes, which the Bush team reminds voters of in Fresno, Calif., the nation's grape capital.

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