Democrats strive to avoid '88 mistakes


July 27, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Republicans who thought they'd skewer Bill Clinton the way they did Michael S. Dukakis learned otherwise this month, when they sent William F. Weld here to attack Mr. Clinton's record.

Even before the Massachusetts governor arrived, Clinton aide Betsey Wright was ready with a dossier critical of Mr. Weld's own record. And when the Republican spoke at a news conference, Clinton aides stood by suggesting questions to reporters and rebutting each allegation.

Mr. Weld, who had hoped to give Mr. Clinton a black eye a week be fore the Democratic National Convention, instead went home with one himself.

"This is not your old Democratic campaign," says Clinton media adviser Frank Greer. "We're not making the mistakes Dukakis did."

Democrats believe that Mr. Dukakis lost a winnable campaign in 1988 by taking a break after the convention, by not responding quickly to attacks, and by allowing Republicans to define his character and record.

Determined not to repeat those mistakes, Mr. Clinton sprinted out of the convention 10 days ago, campaigning the way a general wages war: anticipating attacks, returning fire and staging forays into enemy territory.

Yesterday, Mr. Clinton campaigned in Republican strongholds in Southern California. On Thursday, he received an endorsement from a police officers' group in Houston, the adopted hometown of President Bush.

From their national headquarters in Little Rock, Clinton strategists closely monitor Republican activities and plot their counterattack. Top advisers and staff members reside on an upper floor of a former newspaper building.

It is a compact, high-tech operation with a casual look: Most doors are open, aides mingle and ties are definitely not required. Though there have been occasional rumors of dissension, the Clinton campaign leadership appears more unified and focused today than the seemingly disorganized Bush campaign.

Campaign tacticians James Carville and Paul Begala work there with communications director George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Greer and his partner Mandy Grunwald, campaign manager David Wilhelm and others, among them Ms. Wright. Longtime adviser Bruce Lindsey is usually traveling with the candidate.

With the aid of computers, Ms. Wright can spit out details of Mr. Clinton's record as governor of Arkansas and keep track of the movements of Republican surrogates for Mr. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle.

When there's an attack on Mr. Clinton's record or his platform, for example, the response is timed to meet reporters' deadlines. "The goal is always to be part of the same story," says Ms. Wright.

Hence, when Mr. Bush dismissed Mr. Clinton's economic plan as "smoke and mirrors" last week, Mr. Clinton responded quickly and tried to turn the criticism to his advantage. At each stop along a campaign bus trip, he drew laughs by mocking Mr. Bush's economic record, saying that "if ever there was an expert on smoke and mirrors" it was the man in the White House.

By repeatedly warning that the Bush campaign will launch a negative assault on him, Mr. Clinton has sought to defuse the attack in advance.

Most of the toughest Republican criticism thus far has come from Mr. Quayle and various Republican officials. Mr. Bush isn't likely to step up his attacks until after he polishes his own image with a TV ad campaign that is expected to go on the air before next month's Republican National Convention in Houston.

"They have got some serious repair work to do on George Bush's image," says Mr. Greer, the Clinton image-maker, who contended that any politician viewed as unfavorably as the president would only hurt himself by waging a negative campaign.

Besides guarding against repeating Mr. Dukakis' mistakes, Mr. Clinton is also taking a page out of the Republicans' own playbook. In his speeches, he is sounding what for many years have been powerful themes for the GOP -- welfare reform, law and order and personal responsibility.

Mr. Clinton supports the death penalty, unlike recent Democratic nominees. And he has called for an additional 100,000 police officers to be placed on the streets.

He also wants welfare recipients to work, after they receive up to two years of education and training, and would make student loans available in exchange for national service.

These positions "represent a significant change from at least the public's perception of the Democratic Party . . . and will make it more difficult for the Republicans to attack the Democratic ticket," says William A. Galston, a University of Maryland professor who has advised Mr. Clinton.

Unable to more forcefully attack Mr. Clinton's campaign programs, the Republicans are likely to zero in on his record in Arkansas, making him out to be a weak executive, and labeling him a liberal masquerading as a moderate, Mr. Galston predicts.

What they'll say, he says, is that Mr. Clinton "doesn't really mean it, and even if he does he doesn't have the competence to achieve it."

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