BOSTON -- Michael Dukakis says he has put his defeat to President-elect George Bush behind him and is focusing on the job he long proclaimed as the only one he ever wanted -- Massachusetts governor.
'You don't run for the presidency for 20 months and lose and not be disappointed,' Dukakis said in an interview with United Press International, one of the first since his Nov. 8 loss. 'But it's nice to have a normal life, sleep in our own bed and look forward to a holiday that will be a family reunion.'
But the work may not be as pleasant as he remembered when, as a relatively obscure governor, he embarked on a 20-month odyssey and became the standard bearer of a Democratic Party believed to have had its best shot at the presidency in 12 years.
Massachusetts and Dukakis now face a $633 million state budget shortfall brought on by unexpectedly low revenue collections and spending that outstripped appropriations.
The 'challenge' -- Dukakis declines to call it a crisis -- means making tough decisions about cutting services or raising taxes in a highly charged environment where every move is weighed against questions of a fourth term in 1990 and future White House aspirations.
Dukakis prefers to look ahead rather than second guess the decisions that brought him back home. And he is deliberately vague about his plans.
The 55-year-old chief executive, whose reputation as a cold technocrat hampered his efforts at reaching voters, defends plunging right back into the job Nov. 9. He and his wife, Kitty, however, did allow themselves a 10-day Florida vacation earlier this month.
'I think gettingback here and digging into things right away made sense. I'm still decompressing.'
Always proud of his home state, Dukakis says the campaign helped him realize 'how universal many of these issues are becoming. The middle-class squeeze is a very real thing.'
Dukakis says themes he enunciated throughout the campaign -- from drug education to affordable housing and the environment -- will be a centerpiece of his third term activities.
And while refusing to commit himself on how to finance these efforts given Massachusetts' current financial picture, he repeatedly has made clear 'the economic future of this state is always the single-most important issue.'
'We're facing a fiscal challenge, yet I want to keep moving forward,' he says.
But the three-term governor also points out the difficulties involved in solving the challenge, saying states will have to go it alone as the federal government, he expects, will maintain the arms-length approach of the Reagan years.
'With the possible exception of drug education, there seems to be nothing planned by the new administration,' Dukakis says, adding hopefully that Bush is 'troubled by homelessness.'
He also believes Bush must be willing to take advantage of foreign policy opportunities offered by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's vow to reduce his military forces.
The 'one festering sore,' he says, is U.S. policy toward the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, including a continued distance from the peace efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.
'I was encouraged by reports that Bush was going to try to develop a bipartisan foreign policy in Central America,' Dukakis says, nodding to Democratic displeasure with U.S. support for Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
'Our present policy is going nowhere.'
Dukakis is evasive about his own political plans, brushing aside questions about a fourth term in 1990 with 'I have to sit back and think about that but we've got a lot of time.'
He is equally vague about his national ambitions, insisting only 'I want to be active and play as constructive a role as I can in my party.'
Roundly criticized for failing to fight back against the GOP's negative campaign, Dukakis readily admits he still has no answers for overcoming what he fears will be a future of increasingly mud-filled campaigns.
But he believes an equally difficult challenge will be to find ways to get candidates out of the 'cocoon' formed by the media and the Secret Service and mix with the people.
A reflective Dukakis sees only the good side of his national roller coaster ride.
'I'm a guy who's been blessed with a wonderful family and an opportunity to be of service,' he says. 'I appreciate this country and what it means when you have the kind of opportunity I've had. It's very special.'