FOR the first time in nearly two years Michael Dukakis is free once more to direct his full attention to Massachusetts. Ahead could lie some of the biggest challenges of his political career for the just-defeated Democratic presidential nominee.
The first and perhaps most crucial of these is the need to come to grips with the Bay State's financial problems - something certain to tax his heralded managerial skills. Avoiding higher taxes could prove all but impossible.
Another challenge for the governor, as he moves into the second half of his third term, is holding together the strong home-state coalition of fellow Democrats. Without their cooperation and support his presidential campaign might have run aground on political shoals long before he was selected as the 1988 Democratic standard bearer.
The state legislative leadership, which went out of its way to help Mr. Dukakis gain passage of such high-visibility measures as the first-in-the-nation universal health-care program, may now be less eager to give him what he wants.
Although it could be months before the governor announces whether he will seek reelection in 1990, he could find himself under mounting pressure from several prominent state Democrats not to run.
And if he does go after another four-year term, he could face a tough intraparty battle, especially if a substantial segment of anti-Dukakis Democrats rally behind one of his potential challengers.
Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, Attorney General James Shannon, and Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn have done little to discourage speculation about their interest in the governorship. Each has an independent campaign organization.
Were Dukakis to bow out, a fairly large field of would-be Democratic successors could surface quickly.
While it might make things a lot easier for others, especially potential candidates, if Dukakis announced that he would not seek a fourth term, such a move might weaken his leadership now. And it would surely send members of his administration scrambling for jobs and perhaps a new political bandwagon.
Also, the Dukakis campaign organization would surely disintegrate. From a political standpoint it is important to the governor to keep his support team intact for as long as possible. That group of business and labor leaders, community activists, and special interests helped him win back the governorship in 1982 and retain it two years ago, and then helped in his presidential effort.
As Dukakis rolls up his gubernatorial sleeves, he seems almost certain to encounter more criticism from fellow Democrats than he has in recent years.
As much as Dukakis might like to stay on in the governorship, it is questionable how successful he might be.
There is no shortage of Dukakis detractors among Massachusetts Democrats, especially among party conservatives who do not share his views on such issues as capital punishment, abortion, and gun control. Some of them supported his White House aspirations as much to get him off Beacon Hill as to see him elected president.
How well he weathers the storms could hinge considerably not only on his getting the state budget speedily in balance, but also in his taking a firm grip on the state's executive reins, with enthusiasm and a sense of direction. Looking back on what might have been could provide little comfort for the governor and would accomplish nothing for the commonwealth.
Beyond staying on until term's end, the Dukakis future is clouded at best. There are no higher state elective offices to run for. Both US Senate seats [held by Democrats Edward Kennedy and John Kerry] seem unlikely to become vacant soon - if indeed Dukakis is even mildly interested in a federal lawmaking career.
Over the years he has made it clear that he has no interest in becoming a judge. And there is nothing to suggest an opportunity in that direction would be any more attractive the future. Nor does a return to the practice of law seem likely.
A return to academia - he spent the better part of four years at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, between his first and second terms - might be the next Dukakis calling. Certainly he has a lot of experiences and insights to share.
Another possible career might be in communications, perhaps as a political commentator or analyst, an area in which he's had some experience. And it's an area that could provide visibility should an opportunity arise for his return to the political arena.