NEW YORK -- When a prominent poll came out near the close of last week's Democratic National Convention showing Gov. Bill Clinton suddenly leading President Bush by 17 percentage points, it was, as Yogi Berra used to say, deja vu all over again.
Democrat Michael Dukakis held exactly that lead over George Bush at the time of his nominating convention in 1988. Then as now, the Democrats were euphoric, seeing a portent for victory in November. But Dukakis came to this year's convention as a private citizen, not even invited to speak, so resoundingly was he beaten four years ago.
Memories of that unhappy outcome for Democrats generated a slew of questions to Clinton strategists at the convention about why the result this year should be any different. They were ready with answers that indicate Bush will not have the pushover in Clinton that he found Dukakis to be in 1988.
First, the Clinton insiders say, while Bill Clinton knows Mike Dukakis and Mike Dukakis is a friend of his, Bill Clinton is no Mike Dukakis. Whereas Dukakis turned the other cheek when the Bush campaign assaulted him with everything from the Willie Horton prison furlough story to charges that he didn't want school kids pledging allegiance to the flag, Clinton will give as good as he gets, they say.
Second, the Clinton strategists say, whereas Bush ran four years ago in the afterglow of eight popular Ronald Reagan years, he has to run now on his own failed economic record and a program that offers only more of the same.
Third, whereas Dukakis in 1988 went home to Massachusetts after his nomination to tend to state business, leaving a news vacuum that the Bush campaign zestfully filled with charges against him, Clinton and running mate Al Gore hit the ground running the day after this year's convention ended. Their bus tour from New York to St. Louis has conveyed the image of a young and aggressive campaign team eagerly taking the fight to the Republicans.
Fourth, whereas Dukakis was an easy target for the old GOP charges that the Democrats are tax-and-spend liberals, the Clinton folks say, the party has been recast in a more moderate mode that calls for "responsibility" along with opportunity.
Fifth, whereas the Dukakis campaign spent much of the immediate post-convention plan organizing for the fall campaign, 1992 general-election strategy has been in place for some time, according to Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown. Under Brown's leadership, he and other party technicians met early on with all of the expected 1992 candidates and drew up a strategy for the use of whichever of them won the nomination.
Sixth, Brown and Clinton strategists such as Mickey Kantor, the campaign chairman, cite the change in public sentiment since ++ 1988 about where the country is headed. Whereas polls indicated general satisfaction four years ago as Reagan headed for retirement in California, today those same polls show that about 80 percent of Americans surveyed say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
The Perot phenomenon underscores that finding, they say, and now that so many previously abstaining voters have been energized by Perot (before he broke their hearts), the potential is immense for new recruits to Clinton as the only remaining "agent of change" against a status-quo incumbent.
The one obvious cloud over this rosy scenario is the prospect that the Bush campaign, seeing the president sinking deeper in the polls and unable yet to come up with a positive message to resurrect him, will once again go negative with a vengeance, as it did so effectively against Dukakis. And with Clinton already battered by questions about his personal character, the Clinton strategists expect more of the same from the Bush campaign.
When asked whether personal attacks on Clinton will draw personal attacks on Bush, Kantor and Brown say only that Clinton and Gore will hit back. In so saying, they are clearly firing a warning shot across the bow of the Bush campaign ship, allowing the hint that they may have some strong ammunition to use, without really claiming it. Whether that will be enough to keep the Bush campaign on the high road remains to be seen.