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PHILADELPHIA — Many political analysts say that the 2000
presidential election may be a rerun of either the 1960 election in
which Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kennedy beat incumbent
Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon, or 1988, when incumbent
Republican Vice President George Bush beat Democratic challenger Gov.
Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
If it turns out to be a rerun of 1988, when the incumbent vice
president won, it’s possible the election could be decided in the next
couple of days — at the opening of the Republican National Convention.
If past is prologue, the first days of the convention (which now
includes the weekend before the formal opening) could be critical. It
was then, according to Washington political analyst Norman Ornstein,
that Gov. Dukakis lost the 1988 election when, in essence, he ceded
control of the convention to his vanquished challenger, Jesse Jackson.
Even though Dukakis got three million
votes more than Jackson in the primaries (42.8 percent of the total cast
to Jackson’s 29.1), it was Jackson who dominated the news coverage and
began dictating his terms of surrender to Dukakis instead of the other
way around. First, Jackson threatened to carry on the campaign despite
Dukakis’ victory. Next came a threat to stage a platform fight. As
Jackson’s pre-convention assault began to gather steam, the Dukakis camp
acted helpless, believing any attempt to control Jackson, no matter how
benign, would risk the black vote Democrats need and usually get.
Finally, Jackson issued a not-so-subtle demand that he be given the
second spot on the ticket even though less than 20 percent of the
Democratic delegates supported such a development. When Dukakis finally
settled on Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, and Jackson wasn’t told
“personally,” Jackson went into a snit and said he and his supporters
More demands followed, including an ultimatum that former president
Jimmy Carter “moderate” their “dispute” over Dukakis’ “slight.” Waving
the white flag, Dukakis and Bentsen surrendered and came to pay court to
Jackson. Jackson then delivered his speech in prime time and the next
day he was nominated in the pre-ordained call of the delegates.
It was a brilliant performance by a brilliant politician. All Dukakis
did was stand by and watch, like a rubbernecker at an accident. It
seemed as if Dukakis was more of an anonymous member of the
Massachusetts delegation rather than the nominee. Voters took notice. So
did the man who nominated Dukakis, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
Clinton didn’t make the same mistake with Jackson in 1992, and it didn’t
end up hurting his chances at all.
Now it’s George W. Bush’s turn as Dukakis with John McCain playing
the Jackson role. McCain is rolling his campaign bus, “The Straight Talk
Express,” up to Philadelphia. Republican congressmen have climbed on
board and the trip is being heavily covered by the media. McCain also
addressed the so-called “Shadow Convention” in Philadelphia which was
organized by columnist and political kibitzer Arianna Huffington. So
far, at least, it doesn’t look as if McCain is recreating the Jackson
script. His convention speech is said to be laudatory enough of Governor
Bush to cause huge sighs of relief at Bush Central Command. His role and
intensity in the campaign is another matter. Will he be able to bring
independents and reform-minded Democrats over to the Bush camp? Maybe,
if Gore nominates a doctrinaire liberal for his running mate. We’ll find
out on Aug. 8 when the vice president announces his choice for the
second spot on the Democratic ticket.
But for now, at least, Bush looks as if he may dodge the McCain
bullet. If so, he’ll be a lot luckier than another governor was 12 years
Neal Lavon covers foreign, domestic and political issues for the Voice of America in Washington. The views he expresses are his own.