BOSTON, AUG. 8 -- The front page of the Boston Herald today shouted "Head to head" in big bold letters, trumpeting what seemed like the sporting match of the decade.

But the photos were of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), whose debate drew so little excitement elsewhere that even in Iowa, where it was held, the local television stations were opting for cartoons, football and a discussion of Oriental art.

Not so in the Hub, as Boston's tabloids once enjoyed calling this city. Here the Dukakis-Gephardt debate generated more excitement in the news media than many Celtics games.

Two local television stations ran the hour-long event live at noon. The third, WCVB, the ABC affiliate, chose football but scheduled a rerun in prime time last night. Ever since Dukakis hinted he was entering the presidential race last year, the Boston news media have chronicled virtually every move, every utterance. And although there is some unflattering commentary -- like a Boston Herald columnist who labeled Kitty Dukakis a "dragon lady" Friday for her complaints about a tardy airplane -- most of the coverage has ranged from mild criticism to outright boosterism.

Like the Houston media writing about the Oilers or Chicago's crooning about the city's symphony, this is local media talking about local talent. And if the campaign goes well, as it has been so far for Dukakis, the hometown news establishment can't resist a little cheerleading.

"While everybody is struggling to retain our journalistic objectivity, there is a big rooting activity here for the Duke to go all the way," acknowledges James Coppersmith, general manager of WCVB-TV.

"He's a great guy, and he's a great governor, and our experience with President Kennedy tells us that if you get a local man who becomes president, wonderful new tall government buildings suddenly start springing up around here," he said.

For the competition, this is reason for despair -- not simply because Boston news media are infected with Duke fever, but because such things may be contagious across the state line in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire, the state with the first primary of 1988, has always been a rite of political passage where contrary voters have catapulted campaigns into the lead and sent others limping into political oblivion. In southern New Hampshire, the voter-rich section of the state, most of those regularly watching the 6 p.m. local news see versions broadcast from Boston television stations. The Boston Sunday Globe, the weekly newspaper for many in the region, sells almost 66,000 copies in southern New Hampshire. The Herald adds 25,000 to 30,000.

To have those important voters softened toward Dukakis means that, paradoxically, his Democratic competitors must make it appear as though the Massachusetts governor has New Hampshire locked up; any inroads by other Democrats in the primary next Feb. 23 will then look like a loss to Dukakis, competing strategists say.

A key piece of that strategy is pointing to the Boston media.

"They've been fair to us," said Lawrence Rasky, communications director for the presidential campaign of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). "On the other hand, they're absolutely gaga over Gov. Dukakis' campaign. Boston is a pretty sophisticated media market . . . but they have seemingly lost all perspective. Stories appear like 'Dukakis endorsed by living human being in Iowa.' "

A Gephardt adviser, who acknowledges that the increase in media coverage for Dukakis has also increased attention for the other candidates, says the Boston media are "fawning" over their governor.

"Everyone has their hometown press, but what's the responsibility when they move over into New Hampshire?" he said.

Journalists in Boston interviewed recently said they see a daily struggle against making the presidential campaign story into the Dukakis campaign story. They resist this urge, they said, by giving more coverage to all candidates.

"If we just cover Dukakis, we have failed," said Andy Hiller, who is following Dukakis for WBZ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Boston.

For newspaper readers, the Dukakis phenomenon is best savored in Boston, traditionally a place where politics offers an almost daily feast of news about political infighting or miniscandal.

The Boston Globe, which has the clout and the circulation, has covered the governor steadily with no missteps but also with little of the dazzle of previous presidential campaigns.

"They have generally avoided falling into small-town boosterism," said Richard M. Gaines, editor of The Boston Phoenix, a weekly newspaper that is often critical of the Globe. "The thing the Globe has not done is to come up with a methodology in covering the election that includes other candidates than Dukakis."

Helen Donovan, the Globe's deputy managing editor who will head political coverage, said the Globe political experts "still need to sit down and thrash it out because we haven't figured out yet exactly what {the} strategy will be to cover this election."

Part of the reason, Donovan explains, is that some of the Globe's best-known political reporters are out of the country. Thomas Oliphant of the Washington bureau is on leave in Japan this summer, and Curtis Wilkie is moving from Jerusalem back to Boston next year in time for the elections.

In the meantime, Donovan said the paper made a conscious decision not to "just willy-nilly write 50 or 60 lines every time he said anything," she said of the Dukakis campaign.

"We did that with the full knowledge that the Herald was approaching it quite differently," she said.

The tabloid Herald, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has certainly chosen a different voice -- louder, more boisterous and often more fun.

When Dukakis announced, his picture was on the front page for three days. Political stories ran for the first seven pages under the logo "Duke Runs for the White House" on March 17, the day after Dukakis finally said yes. A series on the Dukakis couple recalled how Kitty met the young man of her dreams, whom the Herald described as "the Gorgeous Greek with the soulful eyes and magnetic smile."

The Herald's four-day spree included approximately 44 pictures and 41 stories. By contrast, when Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) announced his plans to run in the same race, he got about 44 paragraphs.

Herald managing editor Alan S. Eisner denies this is boosterism for the Duke, as his headline writers call Dukakis. More coverage does not always mean good coverage by a candidate's standards, he explains.

A two-page spread on yesterday's debate, for example, called it "The Main Event" and featured cartoons of the two candidates as boxers. The paper gave "stats" on the two, including their hands: Dukakis' hands "tend to flutter when making points" while Gephardt "generally makes crisp decisive gestures."

"Maybe coverage is ad nauseam, but it's a big story for us," Eisner said.

While some critics suggest that the Herald is riding the Dukakis wave to gain more circulation, these same analysts say that the Herald also has written some of the toughest stories about Dukakis.

Still, it is the television coverage that worries the consultants advising candidates other than Dukakis and those who expect something more sophisticated from a generally sophisticated Boston market.

"The TV reporting has been breathless, mindless and worthless," said Gaines of the Phoenix. "When Dukakis is anywhere, there are live reports from cornfields, beaches, fund-raisers and it's all very immediate -- the context is about 20 seconds long."

Other Boston viewers have said that because the television stations have started using their best political talent earlier, these reporters -- like Hiller at WBZ, Janet Wu at WCVB and Joe Day at the CBS affiliate -- have managed to hold back any urge to promote Dukakis as well as cover him.

Christopher Lydon, anchor at WGBH-TV in Boston, said he believes that overwhelming television exposure is not the same thing as television advertising. Dukakis "comes across as a rather dour, straight, incredibly hard-working, two-piece, three-button suited, terribly sober guy," said Lydon, explaining that such an image may not be one most admired by the average voter.