The most enduring television image of the 1988 presidential campaign may be neither George Bush nor Michael Dukakis, but an endless line of tough-looking prisoners moving in slow motion through a revolving door.
That stark, 30-second, black-and-white commercial is the punch in the gut the Bush campaign has been using to attack Dukakis over a Massachusetts prison-furlough program.Analysts and political consultants are almost unanimous in giving Bush the edge in the complicated competition for delivering his message through television advertising. Pollster Lou Harris has said Bush ads about the furlough program and Dukakis' opposition to the death penalty have influenced more voters than anything else this year.
"Really, more than the debates, more than anything else, they have determined the set of the election until now," Harris said last week.
He said 63 percent of voters see Dukakas as soft on crime as opposed to 52 percent before the Bush attacks aired, and 49 percent term the governor out of the political mainstream compared with 34 percent who did so before the advertising.
But the battle for the White House between the Republican vice president and the Democratic governor of Massachusetts will only get more intense in the closing days of the campaign before the Nov. 8 election as they carry the fight on television screens across the nation in expensive bursts that appeal more to emotion than to reason.
Federal law allows each candidate to spend $54.4 million for the campaign. Robert Mosbacher Sr., Bush's finance chairman, has said that $30 million to $35 million of that will be devoted to television advertising. The Dukakis campaign spending for television will be similar.
Dukakis communications director Leslie Dach has said that the campaign was trying to buy several five- and 30-minute blocks of time on the television networks, some of which might be used to broadcast "citizen forums" with the candidate.
The blocks would be in addition to a 30-minute election-eve block that both candidates also are seeking.
In addition, Dukakis, as part of a television blitz he hopes will revive his campaign, is offering himself for television-network interviews and making himself available to major-market television outlets.
So far, the competition in television advertising has been similar to the overall competition between Bush and Dukakis.
The Bush ads have been simple, hard-hitting and aimed to achieve a consistent goal - to convince voters that Dukakis is dangerous, inexperienced, soft on crime, weak on defense and out of the political mainstream. By contrast, Bush is portrayed as a family man who would defend traditional values.
The Dukakis advertising campaign, like his presidential campaign, has had difficulty finding a consistent voice or theme. Some ads have been negative and some positive, and there has been, until recently, little correlation with Dukakis' daily campaign speeches. There also have been reports of disorganization and backbiting plaguing the Dukakis advertising team.
Indeed, in the topsy-turvy world of political advertising, an attempt by Dukakis to counterpunch Bush charges of being weak on defense has turned into a Bush commercial.
On Sept. 13, Dukakis donned an oversize helmet and climbed into an M1 tank for a spin around a grassy field at a General Dynamics plant in Michigan. The candidate looked more like Snoopy in a Peanuts comic strip than a potential president, and Dukakis has since made jokes about what a bad idea that stunt was.
Now, that tank ride has bean incorporated into a Bush campaign commercial.
"Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed," the Bush ad says, showing Dukakis riding in the tank.
Never mind that Dukakis has supported an array of weapons. The claim in the commercial is that Dukakis has opposed "virtually every defense system we developed."
The Bush campaign ad on prison furloughs blames Dukakis for giving weekend furloughs to prisoners, including first-degree murderers. The furlough program was begun in the previous decade by Republican Gov. Francis Sargent and the part that involved murderers was ended during Dukakis' tenure.
The Dukakis campaign, seeking to counterpunch, has tried to raise doubts about Bush's choice of Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana as a running mate and possible successor.