HAMPTON FALLS, N.H. -- Michael Dukakis is one candidate who knows what his problem is.
"Make it warmer," he said to his adman, Dan Payne, after reading the script of his final pre-primary commercial. Payne added a few touches, but the candidate was not satisfied.
"It's cold," he said. "Couldn't we put in something about my mother coming to this country, to Manchester? . . . Couldn't we say, 'I need your vote?'"
"You don't want to sound desperate," the adman demurred.
The New Hampshire frontrunner was sitting in the baby-blue velour interior of his van, outside a junior high school. He was about to go on camera in a bitter, wind-blown cold on the Currier & Ives village green of Hampton Falls, with the classic lines of the First Baptist Church for a backdrop.
The Massachusetts governor was worrying about all the right things: He had lost his gloves again. A makeup woman gradually painted a bronzed, rosy face over a countenance blue with cold. She softened the long, curving nose, dabbed a little mascara on his eyelashes.
Dukakis' eyebrows do not give the problem presented by those of his chief challenger, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), whose orange brows vanish under television's glaring light. Dukakis' are broad black bands across his forehead.
"Gotta get moving," he sais, "I've got 15 minutes."
Two young school teachers standing by the window implored him to step across the street to visit their science classes. He promised to do his best after the shoot.
The teleprompter was frozen, and in take after take, it left him wordless. He called over a bunch of school children who had lined up across the street, and they trooped over, bringing with them a golden retriever who kept quiet at the producer's orders every time the cameras started rolling.
Back in the van, Dukakis lectured himself about the moves he must make to hold his heavy New Hampshire lead over Gephardt, who has picked up points from his Iowa bounce.
"Can't let down. We're running as if we were behind." Dukakis was scared straight about coasting on a lead in his 1978 gubernatorial re-election loss to Edward J. King. He is testy with reporters who ask him about his present fluctuating, 40-plus-point edge. Gephardt, who has heavy corporate backing, has come here as the champion of the dispossessed and baits Dukakis to be more "specific." Dukakis does not retort.
In his pious way, he deplores the riveting Dole-Bush feud. Most other Democrats are greatly diverted but not Michael Dukakis, overachieving son of Greek immigrants.
"That slugfest is disgraceful," he says righteously. "I think it hurts them both. I didn't enjoy it at all. I think it demeaned the process." His concern is that Democratic voters will start thinking about a second choice. Gephardt, who is just as cautious and unexciting, is a plausible bet for perverse Granite Staters who love nothing more than to trip a front-runner and upset prophets.
But if Dukakis is a cool candidate, he has a hot issue. New Hampshire's Seabrook power plant, the most hotly contested nuclear facility in the country, has just gone into bankruptcy.
Seabrook is the reason for Dukakis' candidacy. He has figuratively stood in the doorway, preventing its opening. He refuses to accept the loony Seabrook evacuation plan, which would cover six Massachusetts towns within a 10-mile radius of the plant.
Dukakis, characteristically, had to be pushed to take his stand. A compulsive technocrat, he had nothing against nuclear power. Massachusetts Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry and Rep. Ed Markey leaned heavily on him to become the hero of New Hampshire's beleaguered environmentalists. The plant is inexplicably situated on a stretch of New Hampshire's tiny shoreline directly adjacent to Hampton Beach.
Seabrook generates intense and bipartisan passion in the seacoast area.
Bruce Montville, a proper Republican Portsmouth businessman, showed up at the Masonic hall where Dukakis made a speech about new energy policy. He told the press about "Republicans against Seabrook" -- who are airing radio commercials saying, "If you don't want Seabrook, you don't want Bush."
The vice president, as is his wont with prickly questions, pleads ignorance and goes along with his local campaign director, Gov. John Sununu, a Seabrook enthusiast.
A white-haired anti-Seabrook valkyrie, Mimi Fallon, who lives between the plant and the ocean, showed up to cheer Dukakis, although she will not vote for him. Since she heard that Dole has pulled up within two points of Bush, she has switched from Kemp to Dole. Seabrook is Dukakis's message here. The well-worn "Massachusetts Miracle" won't do. New Hampshire is booming economically, too.
Dukakis' candidacy was first thought to be the contrivance of his brilliant chief of staff, John Sasso, who had to go in the wake of the Biden-tapes crisis. But on his own, the Duke developed a taste for campaigning and a belief in his hopes. He loves it all, even standing out in the cold.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.