IF Michael Dukakis were a magician, his every move could hardly be more closely watched these days. Massachusetts' Democratic governor seems to be enjoying all the attention, while speculation abounds about his possible presidential candidacy. There is little doubt that he would like to occupy the White House. But he is putting off that decision for several more weeks.
That makes political sense, since it is questionable how well he might do, especially outside Massachusetts.
As ambitious as he might be to become his party's 1988 standard-bearer, Mr. Dukakis is not about to spend the time and energy, unless he is convinced he can wage a strong campaign.
For this reason more than a few seasoned observers, including some longtime Dukakis-watchers, doubt he will run, although he will leave the door ajar as long as possible, just in case.
Should the governor decide to run, however, he could do so fairly easily, since New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary will be next door.
In promising a decision by ``late winter or early spring,'' Dukakis makes it clear that if he makes a bid for national office, it won't be because of boredom. ``I love this job, I love this state, and I am very proud of what we have been able to do together.'' To leave it would be very difficult, he says, adding that he is ``very concerned about this country, particularly in the light of what's been happening in Washington....''
The governor is looking forward to his third-term inaugural on Jan. 8. His speech will almost surely include a pledge to continue to strengthen the economy and clean up the environment.
Dukakis says his priorities will include dealing with such challenges as ``adult literacy, teen pregnancy, teen dropouts, drug and alcohol abuse among young people, and child-support enforcement.''
Regardless of whether he seeks the presidency, Dukakis says he aims ``to help in some way to turn this country around, to end the kind of thing which really is crippling us as an international leader, and to get this country moving in the right direction.''
Dukakis, a political liberal turned somewhat moderate, is very much a partisan - perhaps too much of one. He has been one of the shrillest critics of President Reagan, on a broad range of issues.
The next president, the governor suggests, must focus on improving the nation's competitiveness and how the United States ``remains a strong competitive force in the world economy.''
A Dukakis reach for national office would almost surely be keyed to his record as governor, with prime focus on the Bay State's continuing low unemployment, now 4.2 percent, lowest among US industrial states. Another point of pride is the so-called ET (Employment and Training) program that has helped thousands of welfare mothers get off welfare and into jobs.
Few governors in recent years have made more trips to Washington to tell about what Massachusetts has done to reduce public assistance costs and promote economic growth.
While not the best-known governor, Dukakis has gained substantial visibility among governors and in Democratic ranks. He has campaigned in several states for party candidates. And this may have earned him needed support, should he pursue national office.
If he seeks the nomination, he can almost certainly count on backing from US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who says he will not be a candidate for the White House in 1988.
Some who doubt a Dukakis presidential candidacy are not so quick to discount the possibility of his landing the No. 2 spot. The governor indicates that if tapped for the vice-presidential nomination he would give it deep consideration. As for a US Cabinet post, he says he is not interested. He would prefer staying on as governor, he says. And he might just seek a fourth term, come 1990.
George Merry is a longtime observer of the Massachusetts political scene.