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Time for Dukakis to pick up pieces. Back to Massachusetts to mend party fences and state budget

Outside, it looked like a satellite dish rally. Inside, cameramen packed two grandstands as campaign workers and reporters milled about below. In a campaign dominated by television, it was fitting that television should dominate the celebration of Michael Dukakis's official presidential demise, held election night at the cavernous World Trade Center in South Boston. (Dukakis heads back for his governor's chair, Page 7.)

While a noisy rock band played such selections as ``It's Hip to Be Square,'' the crowd watched election returns on three vast screens. Young volunteers were stationed strategically behind network journalist-celebs like Sam Donaldson to wave Dukakis-Bentsen banners whenever they went on air.

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``We have some very important people here tonight,'' said Al Franken, the comedian, who emceed the evening. ``Sam Donaldson, for example.'' Long pause. ``I can't think of anyone else.''

In truth, there really weren't that many other celebrities. Raymond Flynn, the Boston mayor, was there, along with Attorney General James Shannon and United States Sen. John Kerry. But few other political personages appeared, and virtually none from outside the state. Democrats are not pleased at the way the Massachusetts governor bungled a campaign that, in their view at least, was his to win.

``He'll be lucky to get out with his backside in one piece'' is how one party worker in Washington put it. In Boston, things are a little better, but not much.

Many have thought all along that the Democrats would be lucky to lose this election, that the nation's budgetary problems will likely make the next President a one-term leader.

But Dukakis doesn't have the luxury of going out to pasture like previous Democratic losers Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter. He has to return to his State House office to face a budget mess not unlike the one he would have inherited in Washington. Except that this one is his own doing.

``He comes back with zero capital,'' says state representative Bill Nagle, a Democrat and Dukakis supporter. ``He didn't so much lose. He beat himself, and that hurts.''

Disappointment with the governor is widespread in Boston these days. There were Boston Globe reporters who tasted the prospect of journalistic glory in the Washington bureau. Professors at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who had visions of deputy undersecretaryships in Washington. (Contrary to that school's liberal image, however, there were almost as many Bush advisers on the faculty.)

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The letdown may be greatest in the state legislature. Last summer legislative leaders agreed to paper over the state's budget problems until after the election, to spare Dukakis embarrassment during the campaign. To Democratic rivals, a Dukakis in Washington would be a Dukakis not in Boston, and a governorship suddenly open for the taking. To supporters, a Dukakis in Washington might mean themselves in Washington, too. ``They all thought they were going to be the next attorney general of the United States,'' says Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Now, however, the state budget is unraveling even sooner than was generally expected. Tax collections are lagging behind the governor's rosy estimates. Last month the state overdrew its checking account, incurring close to $400,000 in interest charges in the process and prompting the tabloid headline ``What A Mess!'' There is some worry, moreover, that a Bush administration is not going to be doing Massachusetts any favors next budget time.

As Anderson notes, legislators were accomplices in the budgetary misdoing. But they are angry anyway. Lawmakers are talking of axing the governor's cherished health-insurance plan. Dukakis most likely will have to navigate this quagmire, moreover, without John Sasso, his political right hand and confidant, who reportedly is returning to private life. Dukakis's beleaguered budget chief, Frank Keefe, is widely believed to want out as well.

Meanwhile, state Republicans are emboldened by their role in upending Dukakis's national campaign. They figured largely in injecting such symbolic issues as prison furloughs and the pledge of allegiance into Bush's national strategy. Democratic activists thought that if nothing else, the governor, whose watchword was ``competence,'' would run a smart, tough campaign. ``People don't think he's as smart as they thought he was before,'' says Jerome Grossman, head of Boston-based Council for a Livable World.

One who definitely comes out ahead is Mayor Flynn, a neighborhood populist who is as warm and personable as Dukakis is distant and cerebral. Flynn was a trooper during the campaign and is widely seen as having gubernatorial aspirations.

Of course, the Massachusetts governor still has many assets. He did carry the state, though only by eight percentage points. He has been an effective governor, and there is some feeling the public will give him a grace period to get back on track. His statewide organization is intact. Whether it is enthusiastic, though, is another question. ``He is strong organizationally, but not emotionally,'' says Martin Laine, a political reporter for the Hampshire Gazette, in the western part of the state.

That was the feeling at Dukakis headquarters on Tuesday night, as well. These were Democrats as much as Dukakis supporters, partisans rather than believers. Said one young Dukakis volunteer, ``Personally, I think Lloyd Bentsen was the best of the lot'' this year.

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