IF YOU want to make a Democrat flinch these days, say the word "character."

It's become a code-word, as one after another of their candidates goes forth for a rendezvous with a banana peel.

The party inches towards the 1988 starting line with the public beginning to think that the Republicans, who are winding up eight years of White House control with sleaze coming out of their ears, are a sensible and steady lot who never go near the self-destruct button.

Dumbness has been the element that binds the Democratic disasters together.

It was dumb of Gary Hart, once the front-runner, to bait the press to "follow me" and then spend a Washington weekend with a blond actress-model who is not his wife.

Did Joe Biden think he could get away with lifting large chunks of Neil Kinnock's prose and claim to have thought of those rolling Welsh periods on his way to the hall?

Did John Sasso, Michael Dukakis' campaign manager, imagine for a minute that he would not have to tell his boss at some point that he had made the videotapes of Biden's plagiarism available to the press?

And why did Dukakis not ask him at some point, "Did you?"

Obviously, the listening, watching public is looking to the Democrats for their melodrama and traumas.

Do we hear anything comparable about the Republicans? No. Are they scrutinized and hounded? No. They have not exhibited character flaws, at least not in public.

If personal failures are to be the sole standard for judgment, the Democrats look bad. But, if somehow, the definition of character were to be extended to official conduct, the public might be just as concerned -- although far less titillated -- about the Republican contenders.

James David Barber is the great authority on "The Presidential Character." His book by that name is pointedly subtitled "Predicting Performance in the White House." It does seem reasonable that a candidate's handling of matters that are not in the nature of a personal crisis should be part of any estimate of his character.

The two leading Republican candidates, George Bush and Bob Dole, are out defending an administration that has a stunning number of investigated and indicted office-holders and a lamentable record of lawlessness inside the White House.

The Iran-contra hearings were a veritable festival of scandal, but no one seems to mind much. President Reagan still lectures the Democrats on their moral obligations.

Bush has hailed the hearings as vindication of his own non-role. He brags that he was "not in the loop" -- a remarkable defense from someone who once told Business Week, "I am in on everything."

In an extraordinary interview with David Broder, Bush said he missed the meeting where Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz expressed vehement opposition to the plan of selling arms to Iran -- and so could not have been expected to oppose the idea.

"If I'd have sat there," he told Broder, "and heard {them} express it, maybe I would have had a stronger view."

He seems to be saying, how do I know what I think if nobody tells me?

This has gone unremarked. But doesn't it have something to do with character?

Dukakis' campaign manager John Sasso is being hammered in the press for peddling a tape of Biden quoting copiously from Neil Kinnock -- and for not telling his boss about it.

But Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, is the subject of a piece in The New Republic, entitled "Republican Dirty Tricks." Author Fred Barnes tells of anonyous material in plain envelopes being handed out to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last winter. In the unsigned literature, Jack Kemp, a Bush rival, is attacked as a phony liberal and "a two-faced sellout politician." Barnes's source, Craig Shirley, a former Bush consultant, told him that Atwater said, in the face of protests, "I want it to happen."

The press paid little note. Atwater denied the story. Bush was not hauled up at a press conference and quizzed about his subordinate's performance the way Dukakis was about Sasso's.

Atwater used language that from a Democrat's mouth would have been page-one stuff. He tagged Max Tenenbaum, a prominent Columbia, S.C., Jewish leader, as "a Gestapo-style politician." Tenenbaum had accused Atwater, as manager of a congressional campaign against Max Heller, a Jew, of raising the religious issue.

Atwater publicly apologized to Tenenbaum. Nobody seems to have noticed.

Dole, after his disastrous run for vice president in 1976, solved the problem of his "character" by taking it into the shop and having it completely overhauled. A personality engineer named Dorothy Sarnoff gave him a new psyche, minus the bitterness and hostility he showed in his debate with Walter Mondale.

Maybe Dorothy Sarnoff takes Democrats, too.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.