SOME ambitious Massachusetts Democrats may already be looking beyond next year's presidential election to the state ballot in 1990. While none are likely to make a formal move for at least a year, the list of potential contenders for governor is fast forming. At least four prominent Democrats - US Reps. Chester Atkins of Concord and Joseph Kennedy II of Boston, Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston, and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy of Brookline - are doing nothing to quiet speculation.
But much depends on Gov. Michael Dukakis. If he wins the presidential nomination and then takes the White House, Miss Murphy would have nearly 22 months holding the state reins, which could give her a significant advantage.
Of course, should his White House bid fail, Mr. Dukakis might decide to run again for governor. Would-be successors would not welcome that news, but few would be frightened off.
Particularly hard to discourage might be Miss Murphy, who has no intention of spending more time than necessary on the state's second-from-the-top rung.
Mayor Flynn, too, might be unwilling to forgo a run for governor, since he will then be in the third year of his second term, and it could be the only opportunity he might have to expand his electoral horizons.
Congressman Atkins, on the other hand, could find it difficult to take Dukakis on, since much of the support he needs has been closely identified with the governor.
Congressman Kennedy also seems unlikely to run if Dukakis does. The eldest son of Robert Kennedy would have to pass up seeking reelection to his Eighth District House seat. If unsuccessful in winning the governorship, he would be out of an elective job.
All four potential Dukakis successors have some semblance of a power base.
Flynn, a former state representative from South Boston, has a strong and enthusiastic political organization in his home city. He was reelected last month by the biggest margin in 3 decades.
Atkins is no stranger to Beacon Hill or state Democratic circles. Before winning his Fifth District House seat three years ago, he served 14 years in the legislature, the last four as chairman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee. He has also been Democratic state chairman since late 1977.
Murphy served four years as secretary for environmental affairs in Dukakis's first administration and 3 years as secretary for economic affairs during his second term. As lieutenant governor she is the first woman to hold statewide office here.
Unlike Atkins, Kennedy, and Flynn, she has campaigned statewide twice among fellow Democrats, winning the party's nomination to her current office in the 1986 primary. That could hardly have been achieved without an organization.
In recent months, Murphy has been directing considerable effort to what she calls ``Blueprint 2000,'' a program for dealing with a broad range of challenges the commonwealth will face in the decade ahead. Volunteers from government, business, labor, education, and human services are helping develop goals.
With Dukakis away campaigning several days a week, Murphy has had some opportunities to gain experience as acting head of state. But so far it may not have worked much to her advantage. She may be getting less media attention now than she did when she was a member of the Dukakis cabinet.
As Senate Ways and Means chairman, Atkins had become a close ally of Senate President William Bulger (D) of Boston. And in the process the congressman's image as a political liberal and foe of politics as usual has become somewhat tarnished.
Atkins, concerned about what effect certain past actions might have on his political future, has gone out of his way recently to distance himself from Mr. Bulger. He says he made some mistakes he regrets. One of those was budget cuts for the Boston Housing Court after its chief justice had infuriated the Senate president by refusing to hire a political crony as an aide.