New Hampshire may be litmus test for Dukakis candidacy

GOV. Michael Dukakis is winging around the country so much these days that he may soon qualify for a ``frequent flyer'' pass. Since the beginning of the month presidential explorations have taken the Massachusetts Democrat to the nation's capital, the Midwest, and the South.

While still undecided about a run for the White House, Mr. Dukakis continues to delight in the media attention this has brought him. Clearly he would like to go after the Democratic nomination. But that would take a lot of campaign money and a strong national organization, neither of which he has now.

Whether Dukakis declares his candidacy or contents himself with a seat on the sidelines in 1988 could hinge in part on how big a splash he makes in his next out-of-state foray. He will be the keynote speaker at the March 6 annual Democratic dinner in neighboring New Hampshire. He is sure to get plenty of attention from party activists there, most of whom have been holding back from committing themselves to any of the small army of potential contenders for next year's presidential nomination.

If the governor brings a fresh message to New Hampshire and in the process displays a bit more modesty than he has recently, the dinner could enhance his campaign prospects in the state with the nation's first primary.

The proximity of the Granite State would make it relatively easy for him to campaign there while tending closely to business at home.

An early February poll of New Hampshire Democrats by a Boston television station showed Dukakis running second to former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and considerably ahead of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. It should be noted, however, that the latter has shied away from New Hampshire, including a thanks-but-no-thanks reply to a Granite State Democratic Committee invitation to keynote their dinner.

Dukakis strategists almost surely will take their own New Hampshire sampling after his speech. Should the results indicate a substantial narrowing of the Hart lead, there is little doubt that Granite Staters will be seeing a lot more of the Massachusetts governor.

One big advantage Dukakis would seem to have in New Hampshire is voter recognition, because Boston TV and several Massachusetts newspapers are widely watched and read there.

That is not the situation in Iowa, which has the nation's first presidential caucuses, or in North and South Carolina, which are among several Southern states where Democratic convention delegates will be chosen soon after the New Hampshire primary.

For this reason, the Dukakis ventures into these states were important to his decision. And the visibility he gained during his three days in Iowa, including participation in a conference on the economic problems of the farm belt, was almost a must for the governor. Similarly useful may have been his two days in the Carolinas and the visibility gained from taking part in a forum on the global economy and foreign trade.

On both occasions the Dukakis message was familiar: ``We've done it in Massachusetts, and you can do it, too.''

These thinly camouflaged political forays, included private meetings with prominent local Democrats, for a bit of advice, if not pledges of support.

A major challenge facing Dukakis, if he runs for president, is convincing rank-and-file voters around the country that he is not simply a regional candidate, with interests and programs largely centered on the industrialized Northeast. Winning the New Hampshire primary, or at least coming in a strong second, would accomplish little more, unless victories followed in other states.

An important part of the Dukakis exploration is a series of private meetings at his Brookline home, with political strategists and leaders of past presidential campaigns from outside the Northeast. One of them was J.Joseph Grandmaison, a well-known political consultant from New Hampshire, who managed Dukakis's first Bay State gubernatorial effort in 1976. Also tapped for ideas are former kingpins in the Walter Mondale presidential campaign in 1984. Dukakis was an early supporter of the former vice-president.

George Merry is a longtime observer of the Massachusetts political scene.

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