Dukakis: It's Probably Obama in '08, But the Campaign Needs to Improve

The Massachusetts Democratic primary, along with nearly two dozen other primaries and caucuses, was held on Feb. 5. Hillary Clinton won it by 15 points, one of her best showings anywhere this year, and Michael Dukakis voted in it—but he won’t say for whom.

“I voted for a candidate, yeah,” is about all Mr. Dukakis, the state’s former governor and a lifelong resident of Brookline, will say.

Mr. Dukakis has maintained an adamantly neutral public stance throughout the campaign, hoping instead to sell both candidates and their campaigns on the need for assembling a massive grassroots organizing effort—a captain and six block leaders in all 200,000 precincts in the country—for the fall. But he also said that Barack Obama will probably be the nominee and the race decided by early June, and possibly much sooner, with primaries in Indiana and North Carolina on tap next week.

“If Obama wins both of those states on the sixth of May, I don’t see how as a practical matter he doesn’t have it,” Mr. Dukakis, who officially clinched the Democratic nomination in June 1988, said in an interview this week.

If he doesn’t score a two-state sweep, Mr. Dukakis said, the contest will be decided “relatively quickly” after the final primaries, in South Dakota and Montana on June 3, with the remaining undecided superdelegates quickly making their preferences known. Asked whether the pledged-delegate count—which Sen. Obama is assured of leading—and popular-vote tally will be decisive, Mr. Dukakis said, “I would think. I mean, we’ve had a contest. You look at the numbers.”

An ally of Howard Dean, the Democratic national chairman who has taken a hard line against Florida’s and Michigan’s claims to full convention representation based on their January contests, Mr. Dukakis bristles at the notion that Sen. Clinton should get any credit—in delegates or in popular votes—for her nominal victories there.

“Florida and Michigan are off the table,” he said. “I mean, how many times do you move the goal posts? There were no contests in Florida and Michigan—none. My solution is to split the delegations and seat them 50-50 (half for Sen. Obama and half for Sen. Clinton). That’s all. The Clinton campaign wouldn’t be happy about that.”

That’s putting it mildly. Under Mr. Dukakis’ guidelines, it’s next to impossible to create a scenario in which Sen. Clinton overtakes Sen. Obama in the cumulative popular vote over the final month of the campaign. So if he believes superdelegates should lean on the pledged delegate and popular vote metrics and that they should not factor Florida and Michigan into their thinking, isn’t Mr. Dukakis, in effect, saying that she has no realistic chance of emerging with the nomination?

“All I can tell you is at this point it looks as if he is likely to be the nominee,” he replied. “But, you know, funny things happen in this business. I can’t tell you what they might be. All I can tell you is it ain’t over till it’s over.”

A funny thing, of course, once happened to Mr. Dukakis while he was on his way to the White House. Twenty years ago, Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes and the rest of George H.W. Bush’s image-makers reduced Mr. Dukakis to a laughable caricature of bloodless liberalism, turning what was once a 17-point Dukakis lead into an eight-point Election Day rout. That example has been cited countless times in recent weeks, with pundits—and pro-Clinton forces—positing that Sen. Obama will be vulnerable to similar caricaturing in the fall as a snooty lefty elitist.

Mr. Dukakis doesn’t buy it. Nor does he seem particularly alarmed by the material (i.e. Jeremiah Wright) that Republicans will have at their disposal in a fall campaign against Sen. Obama. He thinks, in short, that Sen. Obama doesn’t have any electability problem that Sen. Clinton doesn’t have in equal measure.

“Look, she’s got stuff, he’s got stuff,” he said. “Her negatives are higher now than when she started.”

He added, “Everybody knows what [the Republicans] are going to do, no matter which of these candidates it is.

“Bill Clinton was subjected to an even tougher attack campaign than I was in 1992. Nobody remembers that, for two reasons: First, he had learned some lessons from my demise, so he had that unit he called the Defense Department in his campaign that did nothing but deal with it. And secondly, the economy was collapsing. And so even though Bush 1 went after him as hard—or harder—than he went after me, it didn’t register.”

A similar climate prevails in 2008, Mr. Dukakis believes.

“In this case, the economy plus the war,” he said. “Or the war connected to the economy, or vice versa. But you’ve got to be ready for this stuff.”

When the Observer sat down with Mr. Dukakis last summer, he had just begun pushing the candidates—and the Democratic National Committee—to think seriously about a new voter contact model for the fall of 2008. The nomination, he predicted back then, would go to whichever candidate embraced the concept in the primaries. Neither has done so fully, he is quick to report eight months later, but Sen. Obama did in most of the caucus states—something that has made all the difference when you consider the narrow but seemingly insurmountable pledged delegate advantage that Sen. Obama amassed with his landslide wins in those small caucus states.

In conventional terms, Mr. Dukakis said, Sen. Clinton and her team “have run a pretty damn good campaign.

“So how come the other guy’s ahead?” he asked. “Because at least in the caucus states, he and his people understood better than the Clinton people what it takes to win.”

Sen. Obama needs to improve his organization too, Mr. Dukakis said. “Obama hasn’t done anywhere near as good a job at the precinct level in the primary states as I would have expected,” he said. “There was no precinct-based organization in Massachusetts. None.”

“Kitty Dukakis has been contributing to Obama since last spring,” he said, referring to his wife, “an Obama fanatic.” “She’s never received an e-mail saying, ‘Will you be a precinct captain?’ And the guy’s got, what, 1,200,000 contributors—every one of whom, in my judgment, by this time should have been enlisted at putting together a 200,000-precinct, 50-state operation. I don’t know why that hasn’t happened.”

The kind of program Mr. Dukakis has in mind, he said, would take five to six months to develop and implement, meaning the party had better start now if it wants to benefit from it before November. In an ideal world, he suggested, Howard Dean would secure the help of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns right now to begin building, through the D.N.C., a precinct-based system for the fall that would be handed off to the nominee when the contest is over. He believes this could be the difference between victory and defeat for Democrats this fall.

Dukakis: It's Probably Obama in '08, But the Campaign Needs to Improve