The election was held on November 8, 1988.
The 1988 presidential election was a wide open primary for both major parties. Ronald Reagan, the incumbent president, was vacating the position after serving the maximum two terms allowed by the Twenty-Second Amendment.
Having been badly defeated in the 1984 presidential election, the Democrats were eager to find a new approach to win the presidency. Among the field of candidates were the following:
In early 1987, Sen. Gary Hart was the clear frontrunner in the field (Democratic party efforts to recruit New York Gov. Mario Cuomo aside). Hart had put in a strong showing in the 1984 presidential election, and had refined his campaign in the intervening years.
However, questions about extramarital affairs dogged the charismatic candidate. One of the great myths is that Senator Hart challenged newspapers to 'put a tail' on him. In actuality, the Miami Herald had received an anonymous tip from a friend of Donna Rice's that Rice was involved with Hart. The stakeout was also an exercise worthy of the Keystone Kops since there was an unguarded exit through which Hart and Rice may have left. It was only AFTER Hart had been discovered that the Herald reporters found Hart's quote in an advance copy of New York Times magazine. On May 8, 1987, a week after the Donna Rice story broke, Hart dropped out of the race. In December of 1987, Hart returned to the race. However the damage had been done.
Joseph Biden's campaign was also surrounded with controversy, as he was found to have plagiarized a speech from British Labour party leader Neil Kinnock, and then was found to have also engaged in plagiarism in law school. These and other misrepresentations would lead him to drop out of the race. The plagiarized speech was revealed in a videotape of both speeches leaked to the press. The initial speculation incorrectly pointed the blame on the Gephardt campaign as the source of the tape. Michael Dukakis later revealed that his campaign was responsible for leaking the tape, and two members of his staff resigned.
In the Iowa caucuses, Gephardt finished first, Simon finished second, and Dukakis finished third. In the New Hampshire primary, Dukakis finished first, Gephardt finished second, and Simon finished third. In the Super Tuesday races, Dukakis fared very well, though not well enough to knock out his main rivals. Gore and Jackson did very well in those races, both placing first in many southern states, creating a credible challenge to Dukakis's front runner status. Dukakis eventually emerged as the winner of a long primary process.
The Democratic Party Convention was held in Atlanta, Georgia. It was primarily noteworthy for the Dukakis nominating speech (widely criticized as lengthy and tedious) delivered by Arkansas governor William Jefferson Clinton, and the selection of Lloyd Bentsen as the vice presidential candidate.
The Republican primary was less notable, with Vice President George H. W. Bush going in as the clear frontrunner. Bush had the support of President Ronald Reagan, who remained very popular with both Republicans and the country at large. Bush pledged to continue Reagan's policies, but also pledged a "kinder, gentler America" in an attempt to win over some more moderate voters.
There nevertheless emerged a few challengers for the nomination. They were:
Bush's main challenge came from Sen. Dole, who won the Iowa caucus, though Bush ultimately won the nomination.
The Republican party convention was held in New Orleans, Louisiana at the Louisiana Superdome. Bush made an energetic pledge, "Read my lips: no new taxes." It would be a comment that would dog him for a long time to come. Vice-Presidential candidate Dan Quayle was selected at the convention.
During the election, the Bush campaign sought to portray Gov. Dukakis as unreasonably liberal and left wing. Dukakis was attacked for such positions as opposing mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, as well as being a "card carrying member of the ACLU". Dukakis countered by saying that he was a "proud liberal" and that the phrase should stop being a bad word in America. The Dukakis camp tried to tie Bush to some of the recent scandals of the Reagan Administration, such as Iran-Contra, and argued that Republicans were too hawkish on foreign policy.
Governor Dukakis attempted to quell criticism that he was ignorant on military matters by staging a photo op in which he drove a tank around a field. The move ended up being a massive PR blunder, with many mocking Dukakis' Snoopy-like appearance as he stuck his smiling, helmeted head out of the tank's entrance portal to wave to the crowd.
The most memorable moment of the presidential debates came when Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped. He replied with a mechanical denunciation of capital punishment, which seemed unfeeling to some, although others considered the question unfair.
Bush's running mate pick was Senator Dan Quayle. Quayle was young and athletic, and Bush had specifically chosen him to appeal to a younger generation of Americans. Quayle was not a seasoned politician, however, and had a continual habit of making embarrassing statements. The Dukakis team in return blasted Quayle's credentials, saying he was dangerously inexperienced to be second-in-line to the presidency. During the Vice Presidential debate, Quayle attempted to dispel such allegations, by comparing his experience with that of former president John F. Kennedy, who had also been a young political rookie when running for the presidency. Quayle stated, "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." This prompted Dukakis' running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, to respond, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." (http://www.historychannel.com/speeches/archive/speech_222.html)
Other aspects of the campaign which were widely commented on included the Republican "Willie Horton" and "Boston Harbor" campaign ads, and Dukakis staff member Donna Brazile's resignation after her comments about rumors of a Bush affair.
Although at one point he was 17 percentage points behind Dukakis in the opinion polls, Bush received favorable reviews for his convention speech and from that point forward his position grew continuously stronger, in the end resulting in a decisive majority for Bush in the popular vote and a lopsided majority (40 states) in the Electoral College.
A West Virginia elector voted for Bentsen as President and Dukakis as Vice President in order to make a statement against the U.S. Electoral College.
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