The young prime minister was going to discuss his energy program with a group of Prince Edward Island businessmen the other day. "Oil by its very nature runs out," Joe Clark began his speech, "but ladies and gentlemen, potatoes are forever."

Earlier, while on an open-line radio show at Wingham, the 40-year-old Conservative leader spotted a few cows in the field and thought he heard them mooing. "I think I hear beef in the background," he said to his host.

As analysts here tried to assess the outcome of Monday's election, such samples of garbled prose coupled with Clark's physical awkwardness are seen as the root of the shattering defeat for Canada's Progressive Conservative Party.

Clark's supporters argue that he was unfairly defeated because of his image, that too much attention has been paid to his multiple chin, his shaky hands and spindly fingers, his general lack of charisma, and it was done at the expense of his managerial ability, honesty, sincerity and pluck.

Apart from the physical awkwardness and one-liners such as "Ottawa is a long, long way from everywhere," this argument goes, Clark had put together and exceptionally good Cabinet and has sought to straighten out Canada's debt-ridden finances and put the country on the road to energy self-sufficiency.

In the final days of the campaign, Clark himself said he believed that someone had done "quite a job on me" by spreading a totally false image. For a long time he did not pay any attention, he said, to those nasty Joe Clark jokes that became popular throughout Canada.

In this view, Clark's image and his unpopular austerity budget have brought down the eight-month-old Conservative government and restored Pierre Trudeau's Liberals, who have ruled Canada for 38 of the past 45 years.

The problem with this argument is that the Joe Clark jokes, which originated among politicians and press around him during his victorious campaign last May, had filtered down to the schoolyard by October.

Moreover, the Gallup poll that trigered Liberal attempts to bring down the government was taken last October long before Clark unveiled his austerity budget that included an 18 cent per gallon tax increase on gasoline.

That the Gallup did not change after October and that it showed the same 20-point Liberal lead last week suggests that Canadians' opinion about the Clark government has been fixed well before the controversial budget.

To most Canadians, Clark simply did not look like a prime minister. In a television age, his awkwardness, nervousness and hollow laughter came across to the public as indecisiveness.

His election pledge to move the Canadian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem saddled Clark with an aura of incompetence and was viewed as simply a pitch for votes in the three heavily Jewis districts of Toronto. He reaffirmed the pledge one day after he was elected, but then was forced to admit publicly that he had made a mistake.

He promised to turn the government-owned Petro Canada into a private company, then backed way in confusion. Vowing to cut taxes by 2 billion, he increased them by $3 billion instead.

He was plunked into office before his 40th birthday without any preparation for it, or any experience to call upon within his Cabinet. Coming to power after 16 years in political wilderness on a platform advocating changes, the Conservatives appeared to have only a general idea about what they wanted to do.

Much of the public disappointment, however, focused on Clark. A genuinely warm and modest man in private, he seemed excessively pompous in public, something the camera mercilessly exaggerated to suggest a deep insecurity.

Some newspapers have suggested that Clark has become a "collective scapegoat" for Conservative failures. But James Coutts, Clark's college classmate and now Trudeau's principal adviser, said recently that "in this game you have to be a bit of a son-of-a-bitch and Joe doesn't quite have it."

Clark's natural politeness and self-deprecating manner had put him at serious disadvantage in all nonprogrammed situations. He answered the phone on a Niagara Falls, Ontario, hot-line show last week with a bright "Hello, I'm Joe Clark."

"I want to speak to the prime minister," said the obviously hostile caller.

"I am the prime minister," replied Clark, still cheerful.

"No, you're not," said the caller.

Observers here say that until Clark no prime minister has been so maligned and insulted as to be referred to as a "wimp" and a "nerd". Yet he never blinked and endured such pressures with incredible grace. There has been an outpouring of praise since the election for Clark's dignified and courageous manner in the final days as he faced obvious defeat.

Yet the senior Conservative figures have already begun to search for a successor. The party's president, Robert Coates, was quoted today as saying, that Clark was its main liability in the campaign. "There wasn't much happiness about Mr. Clark's leadership" among Conservatives, he added.

The daily Ottawa Journal put it this way: "Clark campaigned well against the odds. His party will admire him for that and for a time there probably will be an emotional response in his favor. But Joe Clark was the campaign issue and parties seek victory above all things."