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Michael Dukakis went to a political dinner here last week, raising a question, as Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess put it, of whether his action was "a dangling participle" or the beginning of a new chapter.

Dukakis' solid victory in the New Hampshire primary last year was a linchpin in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The state will be pivotal if he runs again.

"Whatever political capital he still has up here, he was tending it," said Tom Rath, one of the state's savviest Republicans, adding that the message to Democrats was: "Don't let your eyes wander too fast."

While Dukakis said nothing so overt, the impression was left that he is open to the idea of another run for the White House.

The greatest threat to another Dukakis candidacy is probably not his defeat last November, although that left many Democrats frustrated at his performance on the national stage and others convinced that no Northeast liberal has a chance of winning.

Rather, an even greater threat is his handling of the current crisis in Massachusetts government.

The questions involve both substance and style. As a self-described "born optimist," Dukakis continues to downplay the severity of the fiscal crunch.

On Boston television last week, he said that the issues, while "difficult," were not nearly as severe as the budget squeezes of 1975 and 1981. Two days later, his budget chief told the Legislature the state is bankrupt and $600 million in the hole.

Dukakis' style, often, is to see problems through rose-colored glasses. But sometimes he can't seem to tell the difference between tinted glass and a blindfold.

His failure to acknowledge quickly the severity of his campaign plunge last August and September crippled his ability to stop it.

If he can't be more candid with himself and the public now, it indicates no change in that stubborn response. And the substantive evidence of the fiscal problems accumulates daily.

The state can't pay bills it owes hospitals and nursing homes. Deteriorating roads are being ignored. Eligible students are being denied admission to state colleges for the first time. Dukakis' pet program of universal health care is in danger.

At the same time, Chelsea, Mass., city officials were pleading with the Legislature to let Boston University run their schools. While not a direct state responsibility, this is clearly a failure of government on Dukakis' watch.

And even as Dukakis was speaking here, the overcrowded Essex County jail exploded in violence.

In recent weeks, Dukakis has conveyed the sense that he feels he is dealing with the basic issues, so the picture will improve next year. Implicit is that he will compare favorably with Bush, who is putting off some of the tough choices until next year.

But the problems in Massachusetts are severe. And Dukakis' insistence on minimizing them is a problem in itself.

Rath said he thinks the situation in Massachusetts is adding to the "terrific amount of baggage" Dukakis now carries as a potential national candidate.

Even so, Dukakis was received quite warmly at the dinner here, a roast for House Minority Leader Mary Chambers, one of his earliest presidential supporters.

Chambers said it is impossible to say now if Dukakis could win the New Hampshire primary again in 1992, without knowing how the field will develop. But she said he has a strong base if he can solve his problems in Massachusetts. He had a strong core, she said, "and I haven't seen any reason to think that support has moved away from him."

As for his intentions, Rath offered this: "There was a not-so-subtle message that he knows where the state is, geographically and politically."

Now what Dukakis has to do is convince Massachusetts that he knows where his home state is, fiscally.

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