FOR THE past 40 years or more, governors of New York have sought the presidency with an intense lust and an unmatched record of futility. Franklin Roosevelt was the only New Yorker to win the White House; Al Smith, Tom Dewey, Averell Harriman and Nelson Rockefeller all tried and tried again, and failed. In fact, Gov. Dewey, in 1948, was the last real New Yorker even to win a party nomination. (Dwight Eisenhower, although a legal resident, was never a child of the Empire State.)

Potomac Fever has been a most popular affliction among the occupants of the executive mansion in Albany, and some recent news stories suggest that the present New York governor, Hugh Carey, may have a trace of the virus himself.Mr. Carey, before becoming, in 1974, the state's first Democratic governor in almost 20 years, had represented Brooklyn in Congress for 14 years. During his time in the House and through his service on the Ways and Means Committee, Hugh Carey earned a reputation as an essentially likable and essentially liberal congressman -- then, as now, not qualities necessarily found in matching pairs.

Since his election as governor and more especially since his reelection in 1978, Gov. Carey has figured not too prominently in speculation about the Democratic national ticket. Along with his New York colleague, Sen. Daniel Moynihan, he was one of the policitcal figures reportedly urging Sen. Edward Kennedy to challenge President Carter just about a year ago. Gov. Carey subsequently chose not to endorse either Sen. Kennedy or President Carter in the campaign or during the New York primary. A few weeks ago, he urged both men to "release" their delegates from any legal or moral pledges and to "open up" the convention, a move that seemed to be more in Mr. Kennedy's interest -- or Mr. Carey's interest -- than in the president's. In fact, that suggestion brought one of the few flashes of humor to this rather joyless election campaign. A New York Republican state senator, upon being told of the Democratic governor's idea for an "open" convention, remarked: "Poor Hugh has been waiting so long for lightning to strike, he decided to seed the clouds."

Whether it was more meterological work or just hospitality, Gov. Carey has not met for discussions with Rep. John Anderson. After the meeting at the office of political film-maker David Garth, a former adviser to Gov. Carey and present adviser to Mr. Anderson, Gov. Carey allowed how in a "curious" year like this one, just about anything might be possible, up to and not excluding John Anderson's carrying New York in November. Hugh Carey, the Democratic governor of the largest state carried by the Democratic presidential candidate in 1960 , in 1964, in 1968 and in 1976, offered little help and less encouragement to the 1980 Democratic presidential candidate: "I have no plans to endorse anyone at this time."