WASHINGTON -- Politics is an imitative business. Four years ago George Bush won the presidency by convincing voters he was not Michael S. Dukakis. Bill Clinton is following exactly the same strategy this year.
That is the message the Democratic presidential nominee has been sending so insistently in the two weeks since the convention: I am not Michael Dukakis.
In 1988, Dukakis left his convention for a brief foray into Texas with his vice presidential nominee, Lloyd Bentsen, and then retired to the bucolic pleasures of western Massachusetts and the heavy burdens of state government. By contrast, Clinton came charging out of his convention with a 1,000-mile bus trip across eight Eastern and Midwestern states, followed by a campaign swing through California and Washington and another to Louisiana.
Tuesday, he will be back on the bus again driving north out of St. Louis. If Clinton is missing the special charms of Little Rock or concerned with how Arkansas is functioning, he is keeping it a secret.
Clinton's continuing demonstration that he is the not-Dukakis in this campaign is even more conspicuous in his handling of issues than in his itinerary. In contrast to the saintly Michael, he has been constantly on the attack, even daring to challenge President Bush's supposedly sacrosanct credentials on foreign policy. And when Bush or Dan Quayle or one of the Republican surrogates hits Clinton, the response is swift and vigorous. The message is clear again: I am not going to turn the other cheek. I am not Michael Dukakis.
So far Clinton's aggressiveness -- as well as that of his partner in this enterprise, vice presidential nominee Al Gore -- has paid FTC handsome dividends. He is recording bizarre numbers in the opinion polls, even ostensibly leading in Virginia and Florida and running 34 percentage points ahead in the latest poll of critical California. Perhaps equally important, he has spooked and rattled the president and sent tremors of political panic through the Republican Party.
A month ago, Bush was saying the "political season" would open after the Republican convention next month in Houston and planning a little golf and boating with the other white-shoes at Kennebunkport both before and after that convention -- in short, he would follow a civilized, gentleman's campaign schedule. But now he is racing off on one campaign trip after another, and plans for a respite in Maine have been put aside.
Thus, Clinton has become the one setting the agenda for the campaign so far -- just as Bush did four years ago.
One of the ancillary benefits of the Democratic nominee's aggressiveness is an attitude in his party quite different from what it was just a few months ago. Party officeholders and activists are beginning to believe they actually can win the White House and are responding accordingly.
In the South, for example, there are early and tentative signs that white Democratic leaders are willing to identify themselves with the national ticket in a way that clearly was not the case with either Dukakis or his fellow liberal Walter F. Mondale in 1984. And that willingness, in turn, is encouraging black leaders to make a serious effort to turn out that core vote Clinton needs.
Talk about the Republican "lock" on the region is heard less frequently than at any other time since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976. On the contrary, these days Democrats can speculate realistically about their prospects not only in Arkansas and Tennessee but also in North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and perhaps even Alabama -- all states Dukakis essentially conceded from the outset in 1988.
Clinton's success in establishing that he is not Michael Dukakis is probably not enough in itself to defeat President Bush Nov. 3. Although the Republicans are reeling around the ring at the moment, it would be unrealistic to believe an incumbent president will allow a challenger to control the agenda throughout the campaign.
The voters will be watching far more intently after Labor Day, and it is almost inevitable that Clinton will make some mistakes during the next three months that will set him back on his heels. But the one thing already obvious is that Bill Clinton will make his own mistakes, not repeat those of Michael Dukakis.