Tennessee Senator Albert Gore has made a mistake and he knows it. Boasting of his foreign-policy toughness even while waging a campaign of continual retreat, he now finds himself hard up against the Southern wall. Unimpressive showings in New Hampshire and South Dakota have thrown his late-starting Southern strategy into doubt, even as Dick Gephardt has succeeded in making economic nationalism—the question of “whether America can regain control of its economic destiny”—the central issue in the struggle for the moderate-to-conservative vote. Gephardt’s success in making this race turn on his issues has rendered Gore a fledgling hawk unable to get aloft. And the increasingly frantic flapping of his wings has made him seem callow, shrill, and more than a little ridiculous. In reality, Al Gore is a thoughtful, intelligent man who understands world environmental problems as well as anyone in this race. He has something to say. The pity for him is that he opted instead to run a shallow campaign of cynical jingoism. Earlier this week, Gore belatedly tried to change his campaign pitch, borrowing a million bucks to go on the air with ads suggesting that he, too, is for the little guy. The question for Gore’s candidacy is whether that ideological molting came in time. If not, Al Gore’s quixotic quest for the presidency will have done little except disprove H.L Mencken’s dictum that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
Mike Dukakis has become the 3M candidate: Massachusetts, machine, and money. The governor continues to run mostly on what he has done as governor. As far as campaign themes go, the governor has largely stuck to vague platitudes (“good jobs at good wages”) rather than concrete proposals, and disingenuous gimmickry (increased tax enforcement) rather than realistic solutions.
Now that he has gone South, “tough” has replaced “very” as the gubernatorial modifier of choice. And Dukakis has been tougher. Gephardt’s South Dakota ambush with tough comparative ads taught him a lesson just the way the Ed King’s primary upset did in 1978, and the governor resolved not to let it happen again. Dukakis has gone on the attack, blasting Gephardt in person and launching a salvo of ads strafing the congressman for taking PAC money. As has been the case throughout his career, he has looked sharpest when defining himself by what he is against: PAC money, the Reagan tax cuts, and the Gephardt Amendment (though whereas in New Hampshire Dukakis roundly condemned the proposal as Smoot-Hawley redux, here in the South he has returned to his Iowa position, which is that he would do almost exactly the same thing, but through executive initiative rather than legislative authority.)
Riding his newfound aggressiveness and the bounce from his New England wins, Dukakis remains in the thick of the Southern fight. His reform politics has made him the choice for liberals put off by Al Gore’s paper-tiger toughness, suspicious of Dick Gephardt’s political Zeligism, and doubtful of Jesse Jackson’s viability.
His well-funded and finely tuned machine is essentially running a strategic-hamlet war plan, targeting congressional districts, the political subdivisions within which delegates are allocated. The governor’s principal areas of strength appear to be the Hispanic regions of Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, as well as Austin, the high-tech triangle of North Carolina, the wealthy, white suburbs of Atlanta, Florida’s Gold Coast, and the liberal parts of Maryland. A solid Super Tuesday showing, along with victories in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington, will let the governor point to a delegate total that is almost certain to be among the best in the race.