IF GOD (or the devil) gave me a sealed envelope with the name of next year's Republican and Democratic nominees inside, I wouldn't open it. (I don't open Christmas presents before Christmas either, and am quite content to wait for the next morning's paper to see if the Redskins won the Super Bowl.) For me, as for most political junkies, the fun of the game is trying to figure out not only what is going to happen next, but how and why.

In that spirit of exploration, I advance for the holiday season the following 10 outrageous predictions. (Actually I expect that three or four of them will come true, but I won't tell you which ones.)

Bruce Babbitt will win the Iowa Democratic caucuses with a surge of 30 percent of the vote toward him in the last ten days. Actually, I'm pretty sure about the surge part. In the 1987 gubernatorial races in Kentucky and Louisiana you had one well-known candidate with high negatives lead in the polls and a raft of unknowns trailing behind for months. Then, in the last several days of the campaigns, 30 percent of the vote surged to one of the unknowns, who won. The same thing is likely to happen in Iowa. Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart, with their high negatives, won't be the beneficiaries. Babbitt, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, or Paul Simon could be. You can pick one of the others if you like, and plug in his name for Babbitt's in the rest of this article: there are plausible cases for each. I pick Babbitt because he's got a great Iowa organization and an intellectually interesting platform and because voters have seen him persevere cheerfully through months of adversity. As for his supposed weakness as a TV performer, as he has said, "If they can teach Mr. Ed to talk, they can teach me." The Mr. Ed surprise in Iowa leads to still more interesting results.

Dukakis will win New Hampshire, but Babbitt will be breathing down his neck. The media pop from Babbitt's Iowa victory (Headline: "Br'er Babbitt Hops to Fast Finish in Corn Patch") enables him to close in on Dukakis in New Hampshire and finish a close second. Gephardt and Simon will be out of the race.

Hart's campaign will end in New Hampshire. Hart, finishing with the same percentages that make him number one or two in polls now, will effectively be eliminated. He will use his $1 million in federal matching money to pay off his 1984 debts, to the utter astonishment of his creditors.

The big winners on Super Tuesday will be Jackson and Albert Gore, Jr. Gore, by stressing his differences from the other Democrats on foreign policy, has written himself a ticket to the hawkish Super Tuesday South and will surge with white southern voters over the dovish Babbitt and Dukakis. Jackson will run impressively among southern blacks, keeping his candi-dacy alive through the convention. But the four-candidate field will soon be winnowed down to one and one-half.

After the Illinois primary on March 15, the Democratic race will be all over but the polite applause. Illinois is a central northern state, with factories and farms, ethnics and Middle Americans: a failure to score by any candidate must stamp him as a likely loser in most of the remaining contests. The losers' money will quickly dry up and they will leave the field. Babbitt will defeat Jackson in most of the remaining primaries, but with no great animosity. Like long-married spouses, they will come to resemble one another: in their 37th debate Babbitt will begin making his points in rhyme and Jackson will stand up to answer budget questions.

Neither Governor Mario Cuomo nor Senator Bill Bradley nor Senator Sam Nunn will enter the race. With the nomination in Babbitt's pocket, Cuomo will cancel his trip to China to finish his book on Teilhard de Chardin. Bradley will announce that he'll be conductimg a seminar on the Third World debt crisis at the same time that the Democrats will be convening in Atlanta. Nunn will tell a reporter that his life's ambition is to beat his great uncle Carl Vinson's record of serving 50 years in Congress.

All the candidates will refuse to fill out the lengthy questionnaires sent them by Mayor Edward Koch.

All will have pressing engagements elsewhere, anywhere, on the days of the NOW, NEA, and AFL-CIO conventions.

The Democratic Convention nominating Bruce Babbitt won't keep even the delegates up past their bedtime.

Babbitt's early announcement that he will select Gore as his running mate will swing Southern delegates into his column.

There will be no credentials challenges, even over Puerto Rico; Jackson, as convention keynoter, platform chairman, and the designated choice for OMB director, will announce that he's been persuaded that Babbitt is right on all the issues and that there's no need to write a platform anyway; convention proceedings will run ahead of schedule leaving TV anchors to swap stories of the 1968 Chicago convention; balloons will rise on cue. Babbitt, thanks to coaching from Warren Beatty, will deliver his acceptance speech announcing higher taxes with the verve and electricity of a Cuomo.

The Republican race will stay wide open. While the Democratic race will close down early, the Republican race will continue up to the convention, as the 1976 Ford-Reagan race did.

Bob Dole will win Iowa and George Bush New Hampshire, but the Republican field will stay full. Each of the other candidates will win one of the "Lesser Antilles" contests before Super Tuesday: Pat Robertson in Michigan, Jack Kemp in Minnesota, Pete du Pont in Wyoming and Alexander Haig in Maine (or is it the other way around?). Dole will win Hawaii and Bush Puerto Rico (where Dole forces will file a lawsuit and prepare a credentials challenge for the convention.)

Kemp's prospects will be kept alive by his New Hampshire performance. Bush and Kemp will finish one-two in New Hampshire. Dole's Washington insider status and his pro-tax stance will hurt him in this high-tech tax haven. That will leave an opening for one of the lesser known candidates to use his small-state victory as a stepping stone. Speculation will focus on du Pont because of his Manchester Union Leader endorsement, but that's no guarantee of a polticial future (in 1972, the Union Leader endorsed Los Angeles Mayor Samuel Yorty and conservative Congressman John Ashbrook -- remember them?). Some attention may go to Haig, who says New Hampshire is his make-or-break state. You could pick either Dupont or Haig to surge to second place. I pick Kemp because he really does hate taxes and because booming New Hampshire, with the nation's lowest unemployment is one state where his almost manic optimism may suit the temperament of usually angry conservatives. The state's New Englandish cultural liberalism, however, will make this a state where Robertson will do poorly.

Don't look for early gaffes to thin the GOP field. The equipoise in current polls between Bush, Dole, and the third of the Republican electorate that embraces neither of these well-known candidates will turn out to be permanent. There is less movement than among the Democrats because Republican voters are more strongly attached to their choices. Bush will not get himself in deep doo-doo with any deb party remarks. Dole will not speak in wisecracks understood only by Capitol Hill insiders and Bob Strauss. Kemp will not use the word "gold" within Nexis distance of "standard." These remarkable displays of self-discipline will insure that none of these candidates will fall out of the race.

The first GOP casualties -- Haig, Dupont and Robertson -- will come fairly early in the primary season. Bush will win more Super Tuesday contests than anyone else, but Dole and Kemp will do enough to keep from being eliminated; Haig and du Pont will not. Robertson will fail to match his caucus showings in primaries when the great mass of voters vote and will be dogged about controversy over campaign finances and by the rash of lawsuits arising out of the Michigan state convention.

Look for some missteps -- none fatal -- as the convention nears. Dole, Bush, and Kemp will tussle to win the endorsement of Eddie Vrdolyak, the former Cook County Democratic chairman and Chicago alderman who is now a Republican; then they will tussle over who can renounce him first. Dole will miss an expected Illinois win when he fails to yank his anti-Vrdolyak spot off the air as promised. Bush will miss an expected win in New York when a TV spot stressing his proposal to shut down the PLO office in Washington is seen as pandering to Jewish voters.

Kemp's big break will come in California. Kemp will effectively clinch the nomination by a victory in his native California, which for Republicans still has a winner-take-all primary, with only 15 percent of the votes needed to win. California will put over the ideological candidate of the Republican right in 1988 as it put over Gorge Mc Govern, the ideological candidate of the Democratic left in 1972.

Jeane Kirkpatrick will be everybody's sweetheart. The delegate count will be close enough that Bush or Dole will come to the convention and promise, as Ronald Reagan did in 1976, to choose a popular running mate in order to shake a few Kemp delegates loose. In fact, they'll both designate the same one, Jeane Kirkpatrick. But Kemp will trump them by choosing Kirkpatrick himself. All three candidates and conservative commentators Pat Buchanan, Richard Viguerie, and Paul Weyrich will ignore Kirkpatrick's pro-choice views on abortion, her Scoop Jackson-like support of some domestic Democratic programs, and the endorsement of her candidacy by NOW president Molly Yard.

The race between the Kemp-Kirkpatrick ticket and the Babbitt-Gore ticket will be close. There will be sharp contrast on Social Security, with Republicans attacking the Democrats' proposal to tax higher-income recipients' benefits and pledging to maintain the program exactly as is forever and ever; Kirkpatrick will take the lead in attacking Babbitt's proposal to needs-test other federal programs. The Democrats will attack the Republicans for their willingness to tolerate dizzying deficits and to risk inflation by monkeying with the Federal Reserve Board; Gore will attack Jack Kemp for overreliance on strategic defense and underemphasis on nuclear deterrence and conventional forces.

The Democrats will carry Arizona (which they haven't carried in 40 years), California (with the help of Babbitt's fluent Spanish), and the Deep South. The Republicans will carry New Jersey, New England, and most of the Great Lakes states. This will require thorough revisions of the various "Electoral College lock" theories that have been circulating around town for some years. The outcome will be so close that the party that wins the White House will suffer losses in both the Senate and the House. But the key result, future historians will agree, will be the Democrats' loss of control of the California Assembly and the ouster of Speaker Willie Brown -- a loss that, after 1990 redistricting, will cost the Democrats key seats and lead to 40 years of Republican control of the House.

Perhaps you find these predictions outrageous. Actually, my guess is that if someone forced you to bet $1,000 on each of the nominations, for the Republicans you'd say Bush or Dole and hope for the best, while for the Democrats you'd pick a name at random and count the money as lost. If I were forced to bet $1,000, I'd probably do the same thing. But there are hundreds of different scenarios that can be written starting with these twelve or thirteen candidates and the sets of contests they will face. Why miss the chance, in the remaining few weeks before real returns start dampening the debate, to argue about some of the more interesting possibilities?

Michael Barone is a member of the Washington Post's editorial page staff.