THE GUINNESS BOOK of Records has no entry for political gymnastics -- and that's a shame, because the linguistic somersaults that enliven campaigns can be breathtaking.

By now perhaps every American has heard a defeated candidate proclaim victory, or watched history be instantly rewritten -- with "crucial tests" rechristened "minor skirmishes" when they're lost. Defeated candidates are the trapeze artists of American politics, and the ploys they pull deserve a place in the record books.

But they don't deserve to be taken seriously.

My nomination for the most daring stunt of the 1980 presidential campaign is my friend Jim O'Hara's high-wire act in last week's Outlook. O'Hara is a supporter of Sen. Edward Kennedy. As everyone but long-term cosmonauts must know by in 55 caucuses and primaries -- and the senator lost. Now, how do you turn a loss into a win? O'Hara could write the textbook.

First, ignore history, especially your own.

The rules under which all delegates to this summer's Democratic National Convention were selected -- Carter and Kennedy delegates alike -- did not fall from the sky. They are the product of a long, consistent movement in the Democratic Party, an attempt to democratize the process under which presidential nominees are selected.

The rules were adopted two years ago. By requiring all delegates to identify their presidential preferences, and by protecting voters from a first-ballot double-cross at the convention, these rules signaled the culmination of efforts begun 12 years ago to ensure that the convention delegates reflected the presidential preferences of the primary voters and caucus participants.

Instead of candidates chosen through an uncertain process sometimes characterized by smoke-filled rooms, we now have an open, democratic process. If there are any king-makers left, it's the people themselves.

O'Hara seems to have contracted a strategic case of amnesia. Not only has he forgotten the abuses that spurred the party to reform its rules; he also seems to have forgotten that the Winograd Commission adopted the particular rule in question unanimously.

In other words, O'Hara, Rick Stearns, Scott Lang and Carl Wagner, all former members of the Winograd Commission and all current members of Sen. Kennedy's campaign, voted for the rule they are now attacking. That rule simply requires delegates to support the candidate they were selected to support on the first ballot, and lets candidates remove delegates who seek to switch their votes.

Many of Sen. Kennedy's strongest supporters and chief aides were architects of the reform rules and staunch advocates of the principle involved. This principle was subsequently included in the Call to the 1980 Convention by an overwhelming vote of the Democratic National Committee. Somehow it wasn't until 1980 -- after the senator's challenge to the president failed -- that the whole reform movement has been junked by the senator's team. If you listen to O'Hara, the smoke-filled room is suddenly the bulwark of progressive liberalism.

Second, deny everything.

Did you run in 55 delegate selection contests as if your political life depended on it -- and lose? Then dismiss those votes as meaningless straw polls.

Did 19 million voters think they were electing pledged delegates to the convention -- and not elect enough of yours? Then declare with a straight face, "What's mine is mine. What's yours is negotiable."

Third, get apple pie on your side.

In his relentless attempt to stand history on its head, O'Hara has commandeered every hoary chestnut that ever adorned a Fourth of July speech. We are told that a convention is a deliberative body in the great tradition of democratic assemblies. We are told that judgment and conscience must rule. We are even treated to a guest appearance by that granddaddy of right-reasoning parliamentarians, old Edmund Burke himself.

But O'Hara -- who seems to have neglected the emotional appeal of maternity, but little else -- has made a few errors in timing.

There is all the deliberation and conscience and judgment in the world in the nominating process. And years of reform have built that democracy into the system by putting it into the primaries and caucuses themselves.

Bartered, brokened and bossed conventions diminished voter participation. Now, thanks to the new rules, there is not a Democratic voter in America who is barred from expressing a preference for a Democratic presidential candidate. And now, thanks again to the new rules, there is not a Democratic delegate in America who is free to betray the voters' trust by bolting to the loser.

The convention in New York is a deliberative body when it comes to creating a platform and making policy which will govern the party until the next convention. However, when it comes to the presidential nomination it's the whole six months of primaries and caucuses that make up the deliberations. Say what you will about the process' shortcomings: that it's too long, too costly, too messy. But don't say it's not democratic. There's not a system on earth more open to citizen participation than our method of nominating candidates.

One could reverse that, of course. One could forget the reforms, forget the voters, forget the delegates, forget the primaries and caucuses. One could write the whole thing off as a nightmare and start fresh.

That's what any zealous loser might try -- if he thought he could get away with it. It's the oldest political maneuver there is: If you've been beaten, try to change the game and insist there's a Fundamental Principle at stake. Something like "conscience."

Conscience and principle are involved in this ploy so recently developed by the Kennedy campaign, but not in the way O'Hara suggests.

The principle is simple. Are we as Democrats going to throw away a process developed over years of effort, adopted and approved by the Winograd Commission and the Democratic National Committee, and relied on by millions of Americans during months of deliberations in every state?

The answer is also simple. We must not abandon this process and violate the faith and confidence that have been so carefully constructed through long years of effort.