THOUGH IT'S NOT IMMEDIATELY OBVIOUS to an untrained eye, politicians do have style. Not necessarily stylish style or even attractive style, but style nonetheless. After all, as de Tocqueville or Lao-tse or one of those old-time smart guys once said, "Not to have style is to have style." Or something like that. It's important for those of you who are running for president -- and who isn't these days? -- to remember that.

Political style comes in two main categories: dictatorial and democratic. Dictatorial style consists of one simple feature: an army uniform. Dictators of the Right (your Francos and Pinochets) prefer the uniforms of high-ranking officers, generally colonels and generals, featuring lots of medals worn over the heart (handy for deflecting machine-gun bullets during coups). Dictators of the Left (your Castros, Maos and Hos) prefer nondescript uniforms of no particular rank. They seem to think these make them look like a regular guy, a kind of GI Joe Stalin. But the differences in uniforms, like the differences in regimes, are not really that important. Right or left, the uniform style makes a uniformfashion statement: Don't mess with me, Bub, or I'll line you up in front of a firing squad.

This style has never played particularly well in the United States, where even authentic generals like Grant and Eisenhower changed into civilian garb when running for office (this may change, however, with the popularity of Ollie North).

Democratic style (in which big-D Democratic style is virtually indistinguishable from Republican style) is a bit more subtle. If dictatorial style demands obedience, democratic style begs for respect and love, which is a lot more difficult. In a democratic society, a candidate's clothing must make two seemingly irreconcilable statements simultaneously. It should say, Hey, Bub, vote for me because I'm a regular guy just like you. It should also say: Hey, Bub, vote for me, because I'm a high-class, sharp, spiffy, rich, smart dude, not a schlemiel like you.

The secret of success in politics in America is to craft a synthesis of these two messages. Too much of one or the other and your campaign goes straight to Alf Landonville. It's not easy to do, but there are some lessons to be learned from history. Here are a few of them:

L E S S O N 1

DON'T DRESS LIKE NIXON

The key to Richard Nixon's problem (well, one of his problems) is a traumatic reaction to casual clothes. In 1971, Nixon's aides decided to show America what a loose, laid-back, hip guy Ol' Dick was, so they set up a "photo op" of the president strolling casually along the beach. Alas, Nixon was constitutionally unable to get down and get funky. He strolled the sands in the following "casual" clothes: a Camp David windbreaker, fully buttoned sport shirt, dress slacks, socks and laced-up leather shoes. That did it. Nixon's nerd outfit destroyed his credibility with the all-important surf-bum constituency in his political base in Southern California. After that, impeachment proceedings were inevitable.

L E S S O N 2

DON'T DRESS LIKE CARTER

Jimmy Carter was among the first politicians to fully understand Lesson 1. Taking office after the Watergate scandal, he affected a distinctly non-Nixonian style. He wore populist, regular-guy clothes like dungarees and cardigan sweaters. For a while, the voters loved it. Jimmy reminded them of their lovable Uncle Fred. Then came inflation and malaise and Iran. Pretty soon, the voters remembered that although Uncle Fred was a lovable old guy, he didn't know doodly-squat about how to run the country. At that point, cardigans no longer seemed the symbol of populism; they seemed the symbol of amateurism.

In 1978, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis also got a lot of mileage out of a sweater. A huge blizzard dumped several feet of snow on Boston, and the Duke appeared on TV dressed in a pullover. People were stunned. Seeing Dukakis in a sweater is akin to seeing Nixon in a Hawaiian shirt. The Duke proceeded to tell everybody not to bother going to work for the next few days. This was a very popular message, and Dukakis' popularity soared. In the next election, however, the Duke rested on his laurels -- and his sweater -- and he got trounced in the Democratic primary. Now he's running for president in a suit.

The moral of the story is simple: If all it took were a sweater, Mr. Rogers would be president.

L E S S O N 3

WEAR RUGGED, MASCULINE CLOTHES WHILE PERFORMING YOUR RUGGED, MASCULINE HOBBY (ESPECIALLY WHEN PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE AROUND)

Give the Great Communicator credit for this lesson. Love him or hate him, you gotta admit that Ronald Reagan looks great when he's out on his ranch riding horses or cutting brush in his western outfits. He looks a lot like a rough, rugged, masculine American cowboy and not at all like a guy who has spent his entire adult life on Hollywood sets or behind executive desks.

Gary Hart was among the first politicians to recognize the appeal of this rugged western image. Hart quickly made sure that photographers took his picture while he chopped wood wearing leather boots, a lumberjack shirt and red suspenders.

Unfortunately for Hart, the reality factor plays a role here. Although voters were perfectly willing to believe that Reagan really did prefer cutting brush to all other human activities, they soon realized that Hart's real hobby did not require boots, lumberjack shirts or suspenders. In fact, if reports were to be believed, it didn't require any clothes at all.

The reality factor could stymie other candidates, too. For instance, Vice President George Bush should probably not don overalls and start tilling the soil while the TV cameras roll. Voters instinctively realize that George is more of an alligator-shirt, sit-down-lawn-mower kind of guy.

L E S S O N 4

CUT UP YOUR WIFE'S CHARGE CARDS

We know you love your wife dearly and you want her to look good, but when you're running for president, you don't want her to look too good. Face it: People don't like their ruler's wife to be a fashion plate, particularly when the people are picking up the tab. Remember Imelda Marcos and Michele Duvalier? They Guccied their way right into exile. Raisa Gorbachev nearly sank glasnost before it was even announced when she was photographed wearing trendy Parisian fashions instead of the standard Soviet wife's uniform, the "Nina Khrushchev Memorial Sack of Peat Moss Look." Nancy Reagan caught a lot of flak early in her White House tenure for wearing too many designer gowns (and don't ever forget those Galanos knickers she sported at Versailles; she won't). They called her Fancy Nancy and other nasty names. Don't let it happen to your wife: Unless she looks like Jackie Kennedy, better stick to that ever-popular modified Mamie Eisenhower look.

As for women running for president: It's still too early to tell what they should wear, although many high-powered fashion consultants feel that Indira Gandhi-style saris probably won't play in Peoria. Better aim for something closer to the Margaret Thatcher look. Although Maggie's political philosophy boils down to the idea that the working class should spend more time working and less time eating, she cultivates the frumpy proletarian look. In a recent campaign, in fact, Maggie got a lot of political mileage out of her "confession" that she buys her undies at Marks and Spencer, which is sort of the English answer to J.C. Penney. Makes you kind of glad we kicked the Brits out of our country 200 years ago, doesn't it?

L E S S O N 5

BEWARE OF SHOES

By all means, wear them (unless you're strolling the beach), but don't buy too many. And don't let your wife buy too many, either. Again: Remember Imelda. Brian Mulroney, Canada's Conservative prime minister, forgot that lesson, and he's currently taking the heat for a pricey closet he had installed in his official residence in Ottawa, a closet with room for 30 suits and 84 pairs of shoes. Nobody cared about the suits, but when workers on the project revealed that Mulroney has "at least 50 pairs" of Gucci loafers, Canadians were outraged. They promptly engaged in the Canadian equivalent of rioting in the streets, which consists of clucking their tongues and saying "eh" a lot.

Never forget: Voters have sensitive soles. You don't want to step on their toes.

L E S S O N 6

BEWARE OF FUR COATS

If there's anything voters dislike more than Gucci shoes, it's fur coats. Remember Sherman Adams? He was president during the Eisenhower administration. Then he got caught accepting a vicunåa coat from a textile manufacturer and, bingo, he was back in New Hampshire. Today, few people even remember that he once led the Free World. Richard Nixon, that famous political fashion victim, understood this lesson well. In his famous "Checkers" speech, he assured America that Pat eschewed mink coats for the funky joys of a good "Republican cloth coat." Today, the equivalent would probably be a "Democratic down jacket." Same difference.

L E S S O N 7

BEWARE OF JEWELRY

Candidates: Leave your jewelry at home. If the American people wanted their president to wear jewelry, they would elect Mr. T.

Jesse Jackson understands this lesson. "I used to love wearing diamond pinkie rings," he told a Post reporter in 1976. "But there was this contradiction. Here we were fighting exploitation in South Africa and there I was wearing diamonds." So Jesse discarded the pinkie rings. Good thing, too. Surveys show that citizens are squeamish about voting for a guy with pinkie rings. They have this nagging suspicion that the candidate might be moonlighting as a coke dealer or a Hollywood agent.

L E S S O N 8

DON'T BE TOO TRENDY

During this year's election in Britain, David Owen, one of the leaders of the Alliance, appeared in a rock video with a diamond sparkling from his front tooth and sparks flying out of his head. Not surprisingly, his campaign went nowhere. Margaret Thatcher -- she of the proletarian underwear -- rolled right over him. He should have known better. If the Brits wanted to be ruled by a wacky video star, they'd vote for Boy George.

Paul Simon -- the presidential candidate, not the rock star -- has a better idea. Steadfastly refusing to bend to the trends, he's making a campaign issue out of his courageous decision not to give up his corny bow ties or his hokey horn-rimmed glasses. Maybe he's on to something. After all, Harry Truman wore bow ties. Simon knows what other candidates have forgotten: Truman, who was a haberdasher before entering politics, was the only American president to come out of the fashion industry. Think back: You never saw Harry wear brown shoes with a blue suit, did you? The man knew his stuff.

So there you have it, candidates: the inside dope on style and politics. Bob Dole paid $3,000 for his political make-over, and he still looks like a K Street lobbyist. And you got this for free. Study this story, commit it to memory, take it to heart. Once you've mastered style, you can concentrate on those petty little problems of political campaigning -- like issues, for instance. ::