"Every time this fellow Dukakis opens his mouth, he's going to ring up votes for us just like a cash register," Atwater said. "After Southerners get to know him, this guy couldn't get elected dog-catcher. . . . I'm almost willing to pay his way down here."
Atwater said Republicans should concentrate on "five or six gut, core issues" that are particularly important to Southern voters.
He identified them as Dukakis' opposition to mandating the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools and his stands on gun control, the death penalty, prison furloughs, national defense and taxes.
"If we hammer on those issues, we're going to win," he said.
The same tune was played by other Republican leaders at the two-day "Unity '88" rally.
Florida Gov. Bob Martinez said Dukakis' values "are alien to those of us who live in the South." He cited the death penalty and gun control as "hot- button issues in the South" that will turn voters away from the Democratic ticket in November.
"The more people in the South know about Michael Dukakis, the better George Bush is going to do," said Haley Barbour, Republican national committeeman from Mississippi.
As ammunition, each of the 700 Republican activists at the conference was given a 15-page "stock surrogate speech" and other material to use against Dukakis back home.
"The Dukakis record is something to hide from the American people," the forward to a pamphlet said. "It is soft on crime, weak on defense, naive on foreign policy, permissive toward drugs, strong on taxes, and it rejects traditional family values."
Atwater, normally a soft-spoken, behind-the-curtain political operator, used unusually harsh language to characterize the Democrats.
He dismissed Dukakis' objection to the death penalty for drug dealers, for example, saying, "You've got to burn some of them; Dukakis doesn't understand that."
Referring to the governor's struggle to balance the Massachusetts budget, Atwater scoffed: "If this guy is dumb enough to raise taxes in the middle of a campaign, what do you think he's going to do if he is president?"
While campaigning in Los Angeles yesterday, Dukakis said that a plan by Bush to boost fees for some government services amounts to raising taxes, something the vice president has said he would not do.
"I understand yesterday he had some difficulty distinguishing between certain kinds of taxes and other taxes," Dukakis said. "Back where I come
from, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck."
Dukakis was referring to comments by Bush that he favors higher fees including higher payments for Medicare recipients who choose to accept catastrophic health care coverage under terms of recent health legislation.
"I don't know if Mr. Bush has problems trying to distinguish between taxes and premiums, but I think we'd better read the fine print in that insurance policy very, very carefully before we sign on," Dukakis said.