Boston — A long and potentially bitter campaign for governor is fast taking shape in Massachusetts. Pledging to make fundamental changes in the way the commonwealth is run, Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III Sept. 21 became the first of a parade of aspirants to declare this formal candidacy.
In a day-long, five-stop campaign swing across Massachusetts, the son of US House Speaker Thomas T. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. made it clear that regardless of the outcome of next May's Democratic endorsement convention he intends to seek his party's gubernatorial nomination in the September 1982 primary.
The main target of the O'Neill campaign will not be Gov. Edward J. King, with whom he has been at increasing odds over the past 2 1/2 years, but former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, with whom he previously served as lieutenant governor.
This strategy is based on polls of voters showing that Governor King, a conservative Democrat, is anything but popular with the electorate, including his fellow Democrats.
Such polls indicate a substantial lead for Mr. Dukakis. The comeback-bent former governor, defeated by King in the 1978 democratic primary, has yet to formally announce his political intentions. But in a letter last December his supporters were adviced that he would run and fund-raising activities in his behalf activities have been under way for months.
With Dukakis, not King, looming as "the man to beat," Mr. O'Neill has been working over the past nine months to dissociate himself insofar as possible from Dukakis, with whom O'Neill worked closely in his first term as lieutenant governor.
O'Neill maintains that Massachusetts voters want "fundamental changes" in the way their state is governed -- something neither King nor Dukakis can offer, he says. His intent clearly is to protect himself as neither a conservative nor liberal but somehow bridge these two extremes.
O'Neill forces anticipate that the wide popularity lead for Dukakis among Democtaric voters will shrink as people look back on his term of office.
Holding that the electorate does not want to "return to the government of the 1970s," O'Neill aims to fuel his campaign with a series of bold proposals. These include abolition of the state's cumbersome civil service system, mandatory tests for school pupils as a condition for promotion or graduation, and a freeze of property taxes on homes. Under the latter, an assessment could not be increased unless a dwelling changed ownership.
Unlike the campaigns of Dukakis in 1974 and King in 1978, the O'Neill campaign will shy away from an outright pledge of "no new taxes."
If nothing else, the lieutenant governor's announcement ends speculation that he might abandon his candidacy -- in part because he was far behind Dukakis and King in fund-raising. The announcement also may discourage one or more would-be Democratic candidates from entering the race for governor -- or at least hurry their decision.
Boston Mayor Kevin H. White, who was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1970, hinted broadly that he might be thinking of running again for the commonwealth's executive chair. State Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti also is considered a potential candidate. Both politicians have large political organizations and considerable fund-raising experience.
Besides the three Democrats, at least seven Republicans have their sights set on the executive chair. The GOP field, in which there is no apparent front-runner, is expected to narrow over the next few months.