BOSTON -- In politics, this is the season of the alibi, and Susan Estrich's is more serviceable than most.

The September weekend that things began to go wrong at Dukakis for President -- the weekend the "attack video" that sank Sen. Joe Biden's campaign was leaked by two of Gov. Michael Dukakis' top aides -- Estrich, then a senior campaign adviser, was far from the scene of the crime. She even has a witness -- her husband. They were together picking out towels and linens and plants for her new faculty apartment at Harvard Law School. "We spent the weekend at Bed & Bath, and Pier 1," she says.

That's the short answer to why Estrich, a tenured professor who a scant month ago had bowed to pressure from Harvard and agreed to "pull back substantially" from the Dukakis campaign until the end of the fall semester, now sits in the corner office at Dukakis headquarters here, accepting congratulations and wearing a broad, gap-toothed grin.

"These are from the Iowa staff," she says, pointing to a vase of yellow roses. The spiky pink bromeliad plant is from her mother.

A week ago Thursday, Estrich, 34, became the new manager of the Dukakis effort, the first woman to run a major presidential campaign. She was tapped nine days after the culmination of the "Dukakis Debacle" -- nine days after former campaign manager John Sasso and former political director Paul Tully owned up (after unsuccessful efforts to pin the deed on the Gephardt campaign) to being the source of the video. Dukakis apologized to Biden, repudiated the video, accepted Sasso's and Tully's resignations and began looking for a new campaign manager.

He needed someone smart, certainly, someone experienced, someone he could trust and respect. And, because Dukakis had denounced the video as anathema to an "issue-oriented" campaign, he especially needed someone who wouldn't turn into a pumpkin when the inevitable next scandal broke.

Enter Susan Estrich, wearing the glass slipper. Dukakis told a press conference late last week that Estrich has the "political, managerial and leadership skills to lead our campaign through the challenging marathon ahead. She'll be terrific."

Challenging marathon is probably an understatement. Sasso, who had masterminded Dukakis' political career since 1981, was known as Dukakis' alter ego and close friend. It was Sasso's brand of political hardball, some observers say, that had allowed Dukakis the luxury of running as the candidate Above All That. Sasso and Tully's abrupt exit, New York Magazine's Joe Klein declared, amounted to a "political lobotomy" for the Dukakis campaign.

The question of the hour, then, is whether Sasso, who has worked closely with Estrich on many campaigns over the years, will function as a shadow manager, funneling tips and strategy by telephone or at lunchtime te~te-a`-te~tes.

And if not, can Dukakis win without him?

"I'm gonna run this campaign," Estrich says firmly, sitting sideways in an office chair, one black-stockinged leg wrapped around a bottom rung, the other resting on the seat beside her. "The governor has made it clear that {Sasso} is not to have a role, official or unofficial, and I'll abide by that. What I refuse to do is rule out a friendship."

And lunches and phone calls? "I think it's not particularly fruitful to engage in speculation about phone calls ... that I don't think are going to happen," she says. "I'm going to be very busy. I have a campaign to run."

On paper Susan Estrich has all the credentials of a cool Dukakis technocrat, but at ease in person, she comes across more like an extremely bright, wisecracking gal Friday -- direct, intense and funny. She wears her hair in a silky, blond-streaked bob, and her pug nose is dusted with freckles. She has big brown eyes, and her long fingernails are painted a deep rose. She's about 5 feet 6, on the safe side of zaftig. Her voice is husky, and it carries.

"Yeah ... yeah ... yeah," she's saying tersely as campaign treasurer Bob Farmer steps up to give her a quick bulletin on matching funds. The news is good. "That's great!" she shouts.

When she clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in 1978, she was modestly famous for wearing blue jeans to work. Today, it's a long turquoise sweater and narrow, black skirt and black pumps, nothing fancy, but stylish for an academic. "I'm a little short of clothes," she laments. "When you're a law professor, you don't dress up."

She is one of the so-called "new old-timers," young Democrats seasoned beyond their years who have played prominent roles in national politics since 1980. Though she has never run a political campaign, the consensus among many of the people who have is that Estrich was an excellent choice. "Susan's a player," says Democratic media consultant Bob Squier. "She's somebody who's always in the middle of important stuff in the party."

Although her political jobs have been issue-oriented, Estrich has a reputation as an able infighter. In 1980, as deputy national issues director for the Kennedy campaign, she tied the platform committee in knots with left-of-center proposals designed to wrest dissatisfied delegates from the Carter camp. "You go eyeball to eyeball with her and she doesn't blink very much," says senior Biden adviser Tom Donilon, who was on the other side of the table then for Carter/Mondale. "It was actually quite a sight to watch this young woman lawyer sitting across from the representatives of the United States government negotiating for Kennedy. From our perspective, it looked like Susan was the chief substantive negotiator. When matters of social security indexing and things like that came up, the rest of us, except for {Carter domestic policy adviser} Stu Eizenstat, were pretty much at a loss."

In 1984, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro appointed her executive director of the Democratic National Platform Committee, where she got high marks for the skill she showed in juggling the competing interests of three campaigns and 200 committee members. When Vice President Mondale became the Democratic nominee, she signed on as a senior policy adviser, and traveled with the Mondale campaign.

"A lot of brilliant people are kind of disorganized," says political consultant Bob Shrum, a former Kennedy aide now working for the Gephardt campaign. "Susan is incredibly well organized, and very tough-minded. Susan could write a speech, arbitrate a dispute, organize a precinct, deal with a ward heeler and conduct a seminar at Harvard and do it all in the same day," he adds.

Politics is still a boy's game, especially at the national level, but Estrich doesn't expect her gender to be a handicap. "l don't have any problems with the other campaign staffs," she says. "I expect there are a handful of politicians in this country who may be more comfortable dealing with men -- those who don't know me. But that doesn't matter. We have men who can deal with them."

She has the same breezy confidence in her management skills. "First of all, I have run institutions before," she says, and mentions the Harvard Law Review (she was the first woman president) and the platform committee. "And being a campaign manager is not a permanent occupation. Most people do it once, with skills acquired elsewhere, and based on a personal relationship with the candidate."

That is likely to be her biggest challenge. "It's very tough when you follow behind someone who had such a close relationship with the candidate," says Bob Beckel, campaign manager for Mondale in '84. Beckel credits Estrich as an excellent strategist, but says the trust between a candidate and a longtime manager isn't necessarily transferable. "There was a lot of blood that passed between those two," he says of Sasso and Dukakis, "and you don't replace it overnight." Estrich was never a member of the informal group of male advisers that met every Thursday night in the governor's office, for example. In fact, during most of Dukakis' second term as governor, Estrich was busy teaching.

She was, however, one of the first people hired by Sasso (then the governor's chief of operations) when Dukakis declared himself a presidential candidate. "She was there practically from the first day," says one campaign adviser. "The governor was going on his first trip to Iowa, and she was there saying, 'We're going to have to do something about {farm} price supports.'

"When I've seen them together, what impressed me most was that he listened to her, and that she spoke her mind ... She has a sort of natural command."

The Estrich re'sume' looks more like the work of a hyperactive squadron than of one person. Important judicial clerkships, two books, tenure at Harvard, National Democratic Committee member, senior adviser in two previous presidential campaigns, former president of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, board member of Common Cause. "This is a woman who gets a lot done in a day," Donilon says.

"Her standards have always been tremendous for herself," says her mother, Helen Kaplan. "If everybody got As, she had to get A pluses. I would say to her, 'I wish you'd get a B sometimes, so you'd see it and know that it's not so terrible.' "

Estrich grew up outside Boston, in Swampscott, Mass. Her father had a one-man law practice in a nearby town; her mother still works as an assistant in a doctor's office. She wanted to go to Radcliffe, made do with Wellesley and entered Harvard Law, with the help of loans and scholarship money, in 1974. The family wasn't politically active, though her father, who died 10 years ago, was prominent in local civic organizations and once was appointed by Gov. Dukakis to the local Redevelopment Authority.

With Kennedy, her politics were liberal, and some acquaintances describe her as an ideologue, but she insists neither word applies.

"I think of myself as a progressive," she says, then frowns. "Labels mean different things to different people, and they can be very deceptive and not very helpful. I do believe in public service. We could go all day, issue by issue and still not ... " She stops, starts again. "I have come to understand that ideals are a good and valuable thing, but they have to be tempered by pragmatism and realism as to what can be accomplished. The deficit means that a lot of the things we'd like to do we just can't do right now. I don't know what that makes me in Label Land, but I think that makes me realistic."

Estrich's connection to Dukakis goes back to 1981. The governor had retreated to Harvard after losing his reelection bid in 1978. By '81, he was ready to run again. John Sasso, his chief of staff, would be running the campaign, and one of Sasso's first calls was to Estrich, who worked, without pay, on speeches and fund-raising. After Dukakis won back the governor's office, Estrich helped in the transition. She was elected to the DNC with Dukakis' help, and in '84 they worked together at the convention, where Dukakis chaired the platform subcommittee on economics.

Three months ago, when Kitty Dukakis decided to make public the mild diet-pill dependency she'd overcome five years before, she turned to Estrich for help. Estrich thinks Mrs. Dukakis may have come to her knowing of Estrich's own trauma 11 years earlier.

Estrich was raped by an unknown assailant in the spring of her senior year at Wellesley. She was attacked in an alley behind her apartment building in Boston as she was struggling out of a car carrying two bags of groceries. It took her a long time to recover, her mother remembers.

Estrich wrote about the attack in the Yale Law Journal last year, using it as an introduction to an article that called for reform of the criminal justice system's handling of rape, particularly so-called date rape. "Eleven years ago," the article begins, "a man held an ice pick to my throat and said: 'Push over, shut up, or I'll kill you.' " The article was the final piece in her bid for tenure at Harvard, and it was considered a risky choice.

"It involved some risks," she says now, "in that it was a topic that might make some people feel uncomfortable. But I thought it was important.

"When I got to law school, no one ever talked about rape. We spent a lot of {class} time talking about larceny, and assault, but not rape. So when I started teaching in 1981, I said I was going to teach it."

The article became a book, "Real Rape," published to favorable reviews earlier this year.

"When she wrote about it, I was in a state of shock," her mother remembers. "I thought, why bring it up again for the whole world to hear? But it's true, it happened to her, and she talks about it, and people call her and talk to her about it, I guess it does a lot of good.

"She's gutsy," says her mother. "She has the courage of her convictions."

The Dukakis headquarters is a sleek, blue-carpeted space in a new office building at the confluence of the shopping district, Chinatown and the sex shops and strip joints known as the Combat Zone. The third-floor lobby is dominated by a rose-tinted photograph of a squinting, shirt-sleeved Dukakis striding through a field of clover. The poster outside Estrich's office has no picture, just four words: "Compassion, Integrity, Competence, Effectiveness."

The only time Estrich seems ill at ease in the course of a two-hour interview is when she's pressed about how she managed to remain uninvolved during the three-week furor over the attack video. She jumps out of her chair twice to go to her desk and snap off a length of cellophane tape from a dispenser, then wraps and unwraps it around her finger as she talks.

"John Sasso is a good friend of mine, but I never discussed it at all until after he resigned from the campaign. I've had one or two conversations since but ... I was uninvolved."

There are those who say that Dukakis overreacted to the video. After all, this line goes, Sasso didn't manufacture Biden's plagiarism, he simply exposed it. But Dukakis, hamstrung by his squeaky-clean image, eventually was forced to treat the video as a high crime instead of a misdemeanor, and now the whole campaign is committed to the same exalted course.

"I'm not going to get into that," Estrich says flatly. "The governor has made it perfectly clear that he disapproved totally of distributing that video to the news media. I believe in and will abide by his direction in that area."

But does "issues only" mean that if the campaign had damaging information about another candidate -- a drug habit, a criminal record, more plagiarism -- she would sit on it?

"I don't think it's a problem because I have a lot of respect for the other candidates and I don't expect to come across anything like that."

She pauses. "And if I have issues of concern to raise about this campaign I'll raise them with my candidate."

When she was asked whether she would allow her name to be floated for the manager's job, Estrich says, she agreed but noted she had two things to talk about. "I said I had certain commitments that would have to be addressed. I said I have, and not in this order, Harvard and I have my husband."

Asked how things have been resolved now that she's campaign manager, she wrinkles her nose. "Ugh! You think it's resolved? I talked to the dean and I told him that my first preference was not to have to teach my classes for the rest of the semester." (A story in the Harvard Law School newspaper earlier this month was headlined "Estrich Dumps Crim Law for Dukakis.")

Until a replacement is found, Estrich will be catching the subway from downtown to Cambridge at noon on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. "Some people eat lunch at noon, I can teach," she shrugs. "I'm not going to let my students down." At her Tuesday class on law and sex discrimination, Estrich told the assembled students she wasn't sure what was going to happen, and confided that it was "a pain to get on the Red Line to get to Harvard in the middle of the day," according to one student who was present.

"She said that basically the most fun she's ever had in her life is when she rolled with the punches, and she was trying to tie it in to telling us that we're so concerned about picking the right job and law firm and city, and the most fun she's ever had is when things fall in her lap and she just goes for them."

"I was very excited for her," her mother says hesitantly, "but the joy is mixed with the worry that she's taking on too much. Her life happens to be very interrupted now."

This past Thanksgiving, Estrich married former Mondale aide Marty Kaplan, whom she'd met and traveled with during the 1984 presidential campaign. It was a Washington wedding; guests included Walter and Joan Mondale, Kitty and Michael Dukakis, Geraldine Ferraro.

The Estrich-Kaplans may well be the Democrats best equipped to re'sume'-wrestle with Robert and Elizabeth Dole. Kaplan graduated from Harvard summa cum laude in microbiology, earned a master's in English literature at Cambridge as a Marshall fellow and a PhD at Stanford, then moved to Washington, where he wound up as a speech writer for Vice President Mondale. When Ronald Reagan won the election, Kaplan migrated to The Washington Star, put in some time at the Brookings Institution and National Public Radio, then signed on early with Mondale/Ferraro '84. After the election, he moved to California as a vice president for feature films at the newly rejuvenated Disney Studios.

Estrich requested a two-year leave from Harvard after her marriage and moved to California to work for a private law firm, but she was back in Massachusetts before the first year was out. "I had decided I missed teaching and Harvard and a lot of things about my life here," she says. "We had already decided we would commute this year." They keep a house in Los Angeles. "When I'm in California I talk about going home to Massachusetts; in Massachusetts I talk about going home to California. Which either means I have two homes or no home," she cracks.

Until last week, they usually managed to see each other at least two weekends a month. Now?

"Well, my husband -- I have to be extraordinarily lucky, I have the best husband going -- he said, 'If this is something that you want to do I'll help you in any way I can. I'll do more of the commuting, I'll get excited with you, I won't view it as bad news for us.'

"He was just wonderful. He made me feel as if he viewed this as a terrific thing for both of us. He said there's only one downside to this. We'll miss each other.

"We work extraordinarily hard when we're apart, so when we're together -- we call them our little honeymoons," she says. "It helps some. And when you're apart there's none of the tug to go home at 7 o'clock, 8, 9, even 10. I wouldn't want to live this way for the rest of my life, but we're going to be together for a very long time. This year, we're going to commute. One year at a time. We'll figure it out."

It's sad but true, of course, that it is almost impossible to imagine a male campaign manager being grilled about the amount of quality time he intended to spend with his wife. "Oh, who cares?" Estrich says easily. "I think that's the sort of thing I might have worried about a few years ago. Okay, so I'm getting asked questions guys wouldn't, but I've still got this job. A few years ago, the questions would have been symbolic of women not getting these opportunities, but that hasn't been true for me this week!"

Why does she push so hard?

"I'm as driven as the next person," she says. "I enjoy achievement and I pride myself on always doing my best. I pick the things I do fairly carefully, and I pick things I believe in."

Politics "is what I do," she adds simply. "I guess I've done it every four years. The last two campaigns were disappointing. This time, I'd like to win.