Even though it ain't over `til it's over, sometimes it's so close to being over it might as well be. Goodbye Dukakis, hello President Bush.

If the debate last week was supposed to resuscitate Mike Dukakis' wilting presidential hopes, it failed. George Bush, I thought, turned him every way but loose. He was firm without being nasty, affable without being silly and confident without being smug. He was, in short, the best possible George Bush.Not that Dukakis was so terrible; he was just . . . well . . . Dukakis. His main job in this debate was to show folks that he was not the heartless technocrat that some believe him to him, that he was a creature of emotion, just like the rest of us. The very first question did him in.

He was asked something to the effect: "If you came home one night to find your wife raped and murdered, your mother hanging on a meat hook and your dog fed into your snow blower, would you get mad?"

"No," Dukakis said. "I would call 812, the police emergency number my administration installed and which has reduced crime in the greater Massachusetts area by 9.5 percent. When the police apprehended the person who did it, I would make sure that they did not put the handcuffs on too tight or speak rudely to him, lest they violate his civil rights." Or words to that effect.

Dukakis showed the same lack of the common touch - or any touch, for that matter - when asked to name his contemporary heroes. He could have named any number of working class heroes; instead he ran off a list of occupations - cops, politicians, teachers, preachers. He sounded more like he was running for guidance counselor.

Bush, meanwhile, was picking a hero from every voting bloc he needed to win, ending with a paean to President Reagan. At that point, the liberals in the room where I was watching the debate covered their eyes.

Oh well, one thing you have to say for us liberals: we know how to lose with grace. It comes with practice. I suppose we should start getting our affairs in order, preparing ourselves for the Bush-(ugh)Quayle administration.

I could live with Bush; but why did he have to give us Quayle, a baby-faced right-wing ideologue with intellectual acuity of a geranium?

I remember when, in a similar situation, Dwight Eisenhower raised the young Richard Nixon out of the mud and into our political life. He was there for the next 25 years. I fear we can expect no less from Dan Quayle.

How could Bush have pulled such a dirty trick on us? Is it his idea of a practical joke, or what?

The other thing that makes Bush a particularly bitter pill is his relentless attacks on Dukakis' membership in the American Civil Liberties Union.

It smacks of the southern politician who accused his opponent of being monogamous, even though married.

The strategy depends for its effectiveness on ignorant prejudice and, in depending on it, reinforces it.

Bush knows that the ACLU isn't for criminals and communists simply because they defend them in cases.

The group has defended Nazis and John Birchers and anti-abortionists and Young Americans for Freedom, as well as Ollie North.

Moderate Republicans have always considered Bush one of their own. They are as dismayed as the rest of us at the campaign he has waged but they expect a return to his former self once he's in office. That's unlikely.

There's a saying in sports: You play like you practice. In politics, you govern as you campaign. George Bush will take office with a mandate for nothing except leading the nation in the Pledge of Allegiance.