AUSTIN, TEXAS -- Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, the Democrat least equipped to win the vital electoral votes here, could well parlay organization, money and massive apathy into a Texas Super Tuesday victory. That might be averted if late fund raising by Rep. Richard Gephardt's money-starved campaign can finance enough hard-nosed television commercials.
Texas provides more evidence that Super Tuesday has backfired as a restorer of moderate southern influence on the Democratic nomination. A Dukakis win here would be a long step toward a nomination many Texas Democratic leaders think would be disastrous in November.
How is this possible for a liberal ethnic from New England, unknown here only a year ago? Not because of his message. Here, as in similarly depressed Iowa, he offers his Massachusetts record as the key to economic recovery. But Texans balk at seeking economic salvation in Boston. Even friendly politicians think Dukakis is the one candidate whose performance slipped between the Houston opening debate last June and the Dallas debate two weeks ago.
The governor started in Texas by signing up Greek-Americans, then moved to the Jewish community. Dukakis next preempted the well-organized Hispanic community, which will cast close to 30 percent of the primary vote.
While other candidates rely on home-grown talent, Dukakis brought in a tough, young Pennsylvanian named Tom Cosgrove. A veteran of environmental and political wars, Cosgrove stepped on toes but built a superb organization. Dukakis spent close to $1 million before even starting television.
This has massive impact in a state where, on primary eve, nobody much cares. Texans are accustomed to voting in primaries on May Saturdays, not March Tuesdays.
But Dukakis has won over party ''activists'' -- committed liberals not in the Texas mainstream. So even prominent liberals doubt whether Dukakis as nominee could carry this state, whose electoral votes have been essential to electing a Democrat.
To nominate an electable president, what is left of the Democratic establishment united behind Sen. Albert Gore Jr. Millionaire Dallas mortgage banker Jess Hay has become increasingly active in his campaign, raising half a million dollars and talking his allies (including the prestigious Lt. Gov. William Hobby) into supporting Gore.
But Gore's all-star endorsements, from liberal former senator Ralph Yarborough to conservative Gib Lewis, the speaker of the Texas House, mean little. Gore's message is hardly more distinct than Dukakis'. Trumpeting his Tennesseanism gets horse laughs from Texans. His personal attacks on Dukakis and Gephardt in the Dallas debate only hurt him in the polls.
If Dukakis is stopped here, it likely will be by Gephardt, whose campaign seemed dead in January when his small Texas staff moved to Iowa to salvage what seemed a sinking effort. Gephardt's Iowa triumph revived him here, and his message makes him more likely than Gore to appeal to the Good Ole Boys, conservative rural whites who may not vote Tuesday.
Gephardt came to Texas last week with his focused populist message. Assailing ''entrenched interests'' and ''editorialists and elites,'' he said Dukakis ''talks as if he could -- and we should -- transform the country into a clone of Massachusetts.'' Both Dukakis and Gore, he suggested, mean higher taxes. ''Democrats cannot win as the party of high taxes,'' said Gephardt.
This is a message that might well overcome both apathy and Dukakis' money and organization. But spreading it through this huge state depends on last-minute paid TV by a campaign out of money. Gephardt raised funds in $30,000 lots at fund-raisers last week. His House colleagues from Texas have been pumping the phones for contributions and buying radio spots out of their own political action funds. On such mundane retail activity may hinge the outcome of Super Tuesday.