Tom Wolfe, midst the drolleries and insights of his superb book "The Right Stuff," depicts the press metaphorically as the "Victorian Gent," the espouser of seemly sentiment. I wonder what Wolfe has made of the instantaneous eminence of candidate John Anderson, that vaguely clerical figure now wowing the Victorian Gent with poetry and pronounciamentos on college campuses, in suburbs, in TV studios -- wherever Purtian sophisticates gather.

Anderson is not just well received by the press; he is reverenced. His chances of becoming the Repubican nominee are just a shade more promising than those of Harold Stassen, and his chances of becoming president are only marginally better. After all, Republicans too have rights, one of which is to nominate the candidate of their choice. Second-place showings in Massachusetts and Vermont will not make Anderson their choice, nor will tomorrow's showing in Illinois. Republicans generally are out of sympathy with him, and he is out of sympathy with them, an issue he exploits very handsomely.

Yet the Anderson bleep has suddenly filled the Victorian Gent with wholesome visions: Ronald Reagan is floundering in high seas, George Bush is about to go under, on comes the invincible Anderson of Illinois. This is too much. This is hallucination. Anderson has now become the candidate of good works. Americans of seemly sentiment speak of him in the same hushed tones generally reserved for UNICEF, Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club. Why the solemnity? He espoused right-wing orthodoxy during the debacle of 1964; he espouses goo-goo orthodoxy today, when even Jimmy Carter is starting to sound like Grover Cleveland. One gets the impression that Anderson, as a student of politics and ideas, misses things.

Nevertheless, the Victorian Gent insists that Anderson is waging "a campaign of ideas," a claim that gives the candidate pleasure, not to say exultation. Well, I have removed my hat and scrutinized the corpus delicti. Alas, the candidate emits much music, all of it duly composed for organ -- but ideas? His reliquary contains essentially only one worthy of the fanfare we are hearing, to wit: Anderson favors a 50-cent tax on gasoline, the consequences of which would be, he insists, nothing less than miraculous, at home, abroad, everywhere.

Now this idea may be absolutely copper-botton. Surely it is audacity itself, but it will not make him the Adlai Stevenson of the 1980s, nor will it wing him into the White House. In fact, it is just the kind of idea that would assure Anderson of a brisk and painful slaughtering on Nov. 4, were a legion of magicians to intercede and wrest the Republican nomination for him. The recently retired prime minister of Canada, Joe Clark, can testify to this.

A campaign of ideas? Let us be brave. When Anderson smilingly offers himself up as a barnstorming Socrates, a Jefferson for moderns, a wallower in the ambience of the highfalutin, he approaches the outer limits of our credulity; even the Victorian Gent might be moved to doubt. "I believe," Anderson notified a yale audience on March 6, "in the power of ideas. That's the romance, the excitement, of this campaign." This romance borders on narcissism. Beyond his 50-cent gasoline tax, his ideas are modest, familiar, somewhat contradictory and, in general, primly liberal. True, he is skeptical of wanton government spending and wage and price controls, but then his positions on social issues, defense and foreign relations put one in mind of a conventional liberal and nothing more.

Of course, this is precisely what Anderson is: a conventional liberal, playing the time-honored role of liberal egghead and moralist for all it is worth. It is rather amazing that, at a time when so many reputedly wise pundits are speaking of America's rising conservative mood, many of the same pundits insist that Anderson is a superbly electable candidate.

He is not. What he is is a mischiefmaker whose mischief is downright dangerous to those whose politics he claims to champion -- namely, the pols of the center and of the left. Thanks to the votes. Anderson's quixotic campaign will divert tomorrow, George Bush might well be fatally weakened, and Teddy Kennedy will also be hurt, particularly in his fund-raising. Bush is the only candidate with a prayer of stopping Ronald Reagan, and Kennedy is the one candidate who has forthrightly offered the ideas of the left to the voters.

This is much to the Massachusetts Messiah's credit as an ideological pol if not a practical pol. Of course, he has presented the left's ideas with the requisite sophistries -- his favorite being to include the average taxpayer when he essays the hellish conditions forced upon us by the rich, while neglecting to mention that, when it comes time to soak the rich, the average taxpayer will get a thorough dunking, too. Nonetheless, Kennedy is the left's legitimate candidate, and he presents the left's case most candidly and fully. He ought not to be denied political and financial support because of the fickleness of the Victorian Gent whose enthusiasm has diverted the skittish to Anderson.

My fellow liberals, whether skittish or of stout heart, send your checks to Kennedy and your bravos for a swell sermon to Parson Anderson.