Right now the 1988 Democrats recall for me my campaign manager days -- back before I became a political virgin as well as a pundit. My candidates were always outstanding individuals who were uniformly dazzling in handling press inquiries. There was only one reporter's question which terrified me. It had nothing to do with taxes or gun control or the Pentagon or the Panama Canal; an adroit candidate could handle any of those. The dreaded question: Why do you want to be president, or senator, or county commissioner? The frequent follow-up was equally distressing: What three things, only three, do you want most to accomplish if you are elected?

Unless and until 1988 Democrats can simply and straightforwardly answer those questions, their only way back to the White House relies on their opposition's fouling up. Of course, fouling up remains a live possibility for either party. But while an opponent's mistakes can lead to victory, such a winner is frequently left without a mandate from the electorate, and the electorate is left to be surprised and often disappointed by the victor's performance in office.

Our nation's voters overwhelmingly subscribe to the maxim about the basic difference between men and boys in American politics: the boys in politics run for office to be something; the men run to do something. The winning candidate in 1980, Ronald Reagan, was by definition a man.

While the Democrats take a few minutes to polish their 1988 message, they may wish to consider how our politics and their party have changed in the past 20 years. On the eve of the 1968 election, there were recognized differences between our two parties. One was that Democrats were advocates of a strong president while the GOP preferred a weak "constitutional executive." In the Reagan years those positions have been substantially reversed. Demographically, the Democrats then included younger voters, southern Europeans, southerners, blue-collar men and Catholics. A majority of every one of those groups voted Republican in 1984.

But the most dramatic change in just 20 years lies in each party's approach to the outside world. In 1968, Democrats were mostly internationalists, and Republicans were still mostly isolationist. While most Americans then agreed with the logic of the Democrats' internationalism, at the same time a majority emotionally identified with the unembarrassed nationalism of the isolationist Republicans. Today, post-Vietnam Democrats have become the more isolationist party, which is their prerogative, but because they simultaneously forfeited any claim to traditional patriotism, the Republicans are now able to present themselves -- just as the Democrats did during World War II -- as the party which is both internationalist and nationalist.

In addition to the philosophical challenges, the Democrats face a daunting task. Over the last five national elections, Democratic candidates have averaged about 40 percent of the popular vote. Three out of five Americans have not wanted a Democrat in the White House.

To win in 1988, Democrats must first reject the Blame the Customer explanation for their past presidential defeats. That was the formula followed by the GOP after FDR won a landslide reelection in 1936. Then, Republicans consoled themselves with the fiction that voters had surrendered their rugged individualism to an intrusive federal government in exchange for paying work. After the 1984 earthquake, when Reagan won 525 of the 538 electoral votes, according to the loser's post-mortem, American voters had turned "macho," "sexist" and "racist." That's not only wrong. It is also self-defeating, because we have only two parties in this country, and a guaranteed recipe for permanent minority status is to brand more than half the voters moral midgets and ethical eunuchs.

After the banishing of that fallacy, Democrats need to grasp the reality of the split-level politics American voters now seem to prefer. Our two parties now have joint custody of both the nation's confidence and its doubts.

The American public believes that Republicans are better than Democrats at certain specific public responsibilities. Among them are dealing with the Soviets, maintaining a strong defense and controlling inflation. That same public, when asked which party is better at protecting the environment, guaranteeing the rights of women and minorities, providing quality education and fighting for the middle class, emphatically answers: the Democrats. The Republican tasks are more clearly identified as the responsibility of the president.

Voters currently trust the Democrats to nourish and nurture the body politic and Republicans to deal with the difficult and hostile forces in the outside world. To oversimplify, the compassionate Democrats are the Feminine Party and the hard-headed Republicans are the Masculine Party.

To win in 1988, the Democrats must offer a candidate and a campaign that together persuades one out of five 1984 Republican voters to switch to their side. Only three times since World War II has a party been able to pull that off. The three occasions: in 1952, with Ike at the top of the ticket and with incumbent Harry Truman sunk to 25 percent favorable in the polls, the Republicans did; in 1960, with the overwhelming support of his coreligionists, Catholic John Kennedy achieved that feat for the Democrats; and in 1976 Georgian Jimmy Carter, with the tribal loyalty of white southern voters and a boost from social conservatives, increased his party's vote by over one-third from the previous election.

Whoever the 1988 Democratic nominee turns out to be, he had better be able to present himself not as the head of the U.S. government but as the leader of the nation. There is a large difference. Americans are not looking for a national city manager. A winning Democrat will have to be a believable commander in chief as well as a compassionate chief executive.

The 1988 Democratic message must begin with an understanding that 91 percent of Americans believe the United States is the best place on the planet. We know we are not perfect, but we are confident that our virtues outweigh our faults, that we can correct those faults, and we do grow weary of tiresome litanies about our national shortcomings.

Next, Democrats must ask themselves if they believe an informed, conscientious, decent and patriotic America could have concluded in 1984 that Ronald Reagan's reelection was in the best interest of the country. If they honestly don't think that was the case, then Democrats ought to look for a different line of work because they won't be able to communicate believably the following message next fall:

1. Emphatically endorse and welcome the leadership responsibilities of the United States. If I were running any Democratic campaign in 1988 and had just two phone calls to make, one of them would be to Kirk O'Donnell of the Center for National Policy, who urged Democrats to place the economic issue in the context of the nation's world leadership. The United States, as defender of freedom, has its ability to protect our interests and to project our influence undermined by an economy that has been weakened by the irresponsible, shortsighted Republican management.

2. No democracy can be a first-rate military power if it is a second-rate economic power.

3. Do not coddle the voters; challenge us. We must pull together for the good of America. Only we can make "made in the U.S.A." once again a point of pride and not a source of embarrassment. To do this, the nation cannot afford to waste a single mind. What broad shoulders were to our nation's growth at the beginning of this century, keen minds must be at the end. We need an unlimited resource of human talent. This is a Democratic policy of compassionate self-interest.

4. Democrats advocate a better and stronger America, not simply a bigger government. Democrats must be able confidently to offer the question they will ask us to answer affirmatively in 1992: Are we, all of us and the nation we love and the world we cherish, better off than we were four years ago? Are the strong more just and the weak more secure? Have we done as much for the next generation and for our country as the first generations did for us? See you at the inaugural.