Democrat Michael Dukakis said in an interview this week that he hesitated in countering attacks by presidential rival George Bush until it was clearly taking its toll on his public image.

Dukakis also defended his record against specific attacks from Vice President Bush, saying "if you let these attacks go unanswered, you're going to get beat.""At first I tried very hard to avoid it," Dukakis said. "But it was very obvious that it was taking its toll."

The Massachusetts governor was up to 17 percentage points ahead after becoming Democratic nominee in July, but that lead disappeared during the Republican convention that nominated Bush in mid-August, and he now trails by several points.

Bush has attacked Dukakis' prison furlough program, under which convicts were granted leaves from prison, his veto of a bill requiring teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and accused him of delaying the clean-up of polluted Boston Harbor.

He has also suggested Dukakis is a tax-and-spend liberal who would raise taxes and leave the nation defenseless.

"The reality is that if somebody comes at you like that, you do have to respond," Dukakis said.

He said he was avoiding Bush's efforts to pin the label of "liberal" on him because, "I think in the minds of some voters the term `liberals' means that you're kind of permissive and you don't have values and you don't have standards."

"I think anybody who knows Michael Dukakis knows that I have a strong sense of values."

He also suggested Bush's controversial choice of Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate was flawed because "it's in a very real sense our first national security decision."

Of the Boston Harbor pollution, Dukakis said, "I'm the first governor of Massachusetts who's working to clean it up."

Dukakis has been hurt in some areas by fears - fanned by Bush attacks - that he would promote gun control aggressively. He said he favored restrictions on cop-killer bullets and plastic guns as part of a wider law enforcement initiative.

On furloughs, he said, "George Bush knows that his administration has had one of the most wide-open furlough programs in the country that's furloughing thousands of drug pushers - the very kind of people he (Bush) says he now wants to execute.

"President Reagan, when he was governor, had a very extensive furlough program which also ended in tragedy. A police officer and a school teacher were murdered. Nobody ever accused Ronald Reagan of being soft on crime."

Dukakis said Bush's attacks were making "a very cynical use of human tragedy."