Democratic professionals expressed relief that Dukakis showed new energy and aggressiveness in attacking Bush and his running mate, Sen. Dan Quayle. They said he finally seems to have pulled the disparate elements of his party - from Jesse Jackson to Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia - together behind him.
"The polls have turned around, we have bottomed out and begun to come back up," said Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, Dukakis' running mate.
Bush's pollster, Robert Teeter, insisted that his man still has the momentum. But he acknowledged, "You can't expect the fast rise we had in the polls earlier to continue."
Still, Democrats remained concerned that Dukakis is basically playing defense to Bush's offense and has not found a way to make people want to vote for him.
"The bleeding has stopped, but it's clearly an uphill race," said Ted Van Dyk, a veteran Democratic consultant and Dukakis supporter. "If nothing changes, Bush wins."
For his part, Bush continued to pound away at Dukakis, with the help of President Reagan. In several stump speeches, Reagan made what even Democrats concede is the strongest argument for a Bush victory - that the country is enjoying peace and prosperity, so don't let the "liberals" take it away.
As the week ended, Bush was holding his lead in most - though not all - of the national polls. But even Republican pollsters said that about 40 percent of the voters - an unusually high proportion this late in the game - have not firmly made up their minds, an indication that the race could shift dramatically in either direction.
An irony of last week's campaigning is that each candidate was concentrating on his opponent's area of strength. For Bush, this was a luxury he savored; for Dukakis it was a tactical necessity. And though the candidates continued to zing each other with unflattering personal attacks, each seemed to edge closer to the center of the political spectrum, blurring some of their differences on substantive issues.
Dukakis devoted most of his time to expounding and defending his military and foreign policies, where Bush's experience gives the vice president an advantage. In a series of speeches, Dukakis took a skeptical stance toward the reforms in the Soviet Union. He responded to Republican charges that he is anti-military by listing six major new weapons systems he supports - including a new submarine-launched missile, the Stealth bomber and the Advanced Tactical Fighter plane. And Bentsen promised "no cuts in defense - none."
Teeter, the Bush pollster, said Dukakis was "trying to counter his most glaring weakness, his inexperience in foreign policy. . . . It can't work. He can't get back to the mainstream because he's so far out."
Meanwhile, the vice president aimed his appeal at the economic self- interest of middle-class voters, a Democratic target of opportunity. Bush caustically dismissed the "Massachusetts Miracle," Dukakis' primary economic and leadership credential, as "the Massachusetts mirage." He also spoke movingly of the plight of poor children and promised that his administration would "give a helping hand" to those in need.
Several Democrats said it was essential for Dukakis to address foreign and defense issues early in the campaign, before the debate, even though they weren't his strong suit.
"Just as Bush tried to inoculate himself on the environment, Dukakis couldn't go through the entire campaign without dealing with defense. It's not a big plus for him, but it was best to do it now and get it out of the way," said Greg Schneiders, a Democratic political consultant.
"Don't let's fool ourselves," cautioned Van Dyk, referring to pictures of Dukakis riding a tank and Bentsen sitting in a World War II airplane. ''The relative success of the exercises this week gave exposure to Bush's issues rather than to ours."
A more optimistic assessment came from Ann Lewis, a Democratic activist and adviser to liberal candidates such as Jesse Jackson.
"Dukakis had five good days in a row - he stopped Bush's momentum and has begun to reverse it," Lewis said. "In the previous three weeks, I was getting a lot of calls from very frustrated Democrats. Now there's a strong sense he's going in the right direction."