For politicians, especially Democratic politicians, Massachusetts has long been someplace special. What high school football is to Texas, politics is to Massachusetts: a year-round passion and a grown-up's profession. But for any Democrats this year, alarmed by their party's lack of either a national program or perspective, the current Democratic governor's fight in Massachusetts, to be decided in a Sept. 14 primary, offers no new ideas or imagination and very few encouraging words about the party's future.

Neither the conservative incumbent, Ed King, nor Michael Dukakis, his reformer predecessor whom King upset in the 1978 primary, would be found in "The Last Hurrah." Both could be called non-charming non- rogues. To call King's public speaking wooden might constitute a slander of the nation's forests. Michael Dukakis' implicit message is that he is magnanimously granting Massachusetts voters a chance to redeem themselves for voting for King four years ago. Both are publicly joyless men.

A year ago, most Massachusetts Democrats were jumping at the chance to vote against King. The incumbent's own poll showed him trailing Dukakis by 67 percent to 11 percent. When you're 56 percentage points behind, even someone as stubborn as Ed King has to admit that what you're doing is not working. What King did was to turn to the able Ed Reilly and a $2 million television campaign, which began last January. The King campaign used television ads to communicate the King record and positions, which the administration and the governor had failed to do.

King's positions demonstrated it's no fluke that he's Ronald Reagan's favorite Democratic governor. He boasts of raising the drinking age, lowering taxes and cutting 58,000 from the welfare rolls. He's against public funding of abortions and for capital punishment. King television has been effective, as even the opposition concedes, in shaping the campaign debate around King's issues and policy proposals.

For Dukakis, the issue is not issues, but character and integrity -- his own. A blue-ribbon commission investigating Massachusetts corruption heard a certified insider testify that the whole system changed when Dukakis became governor, that the payoffs and kickbacks were stopped. King, while personally untouched by corruption, has presided over an administration that has not been totally untainted. The corruption issue belongs to Dukakis, who discusses little else. Now, according to everyone's polls Dukakis is successfully sitting on a lead.

It may be true, as one of his supporters says, that Ed King "suspects any fellow Catholic who's gone to guitar mass of being a security risk." Still, King retains the support of older, more traditional Democrats while Dukakis does better with the younger, more affluent suburban types. To some degree, the Massachusetts race is between racquetball and bowling, between imported wine and domestic beer. But whatever the outcome, the race, short on vision and long on vitriol, offers the nation's Democrats little light and no joy.