Ten years ago this month, Les Francis was engaged in a hot Democratic primary contest for a California Assembly seat in his home city of San Jose. "In a seven-man field," he said, "I beat hell out of the guy who finished seventh -- and that was the end of my political career."

Not quite. This week, the 36-year-old Francis moved into a new job as executive director of the Democratic National Committee, and triggered a protest from backers of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Democratic National Chairman John C. White hired Francis away from his job as staff director of President Carter's campaign committee, saying the nomination fight was "resolved" and it was time to start preparations for the fall campaign. Paul Kirk, Kennedy's political director, responded with a public call that White resign "in the interest of basic fairness and party unity."

The flurry did not keep Francis from moving into an office at Democratic headquarters this week, but it brought a comment to him from White that "I thought I had a pretty good political career ahead until I hired you."

Whether Francis' own career has a long life or not depends on how well he can play catch-up in a job whose importance is understood by few but the political insiders.

While each major-party presidential nominee is limited by statute to $29.4 million in public funds each can spend in the general election, each national party can raise and spend an additional $4.6 million on its nominee's behalf. State and local parties can spend additional hundreds of thousands on traditional registration, voter turnout and organizational activity.

Taking advantage of those provisions, the Republican National Committee has been raising money, deploying a field staff and gearing up local efforts for the past three years to be ready to bolster its presidental nominee.

Battling debt and denuded of staff, the Democrats have not followed suit. Francis' assignment is no less than to try to assemble in five months something that will offset the machine the GOP has ready.

Francis comes to his catch-up job with a reputation, as White said, of being "a guy who can size up a complex political situation and reduce it to a five-page memo with realistic strategy options."

He is one of the new breed of teacher-politicians who has come to play an increasingly important role in Carter's reelection drive, a former staff member of the National Education Association, the union that Francis says has been "the backbone" of the president's organization.

Francis was a graduate student at San Jose State in the 1960s, working for a teacher's certificate, when he became active in the student branch of NEA's state affiliate, the California Teachers Association. Impressed with his favor, the teachers' union hired him to organize other campus chapters when he graduated.

After his losing bid for the assembly seat, Francis remained active in San Jose Democratic politics and became close to Norman Y. Mineta, a young Nisei who was then the city's vice mayor.

Even though he moved south to Orange County for three years as a teachers' union organizer, Francis helped Mineta gain election as San Jose mayor in 1971 and win a House seat in 1974.

Mineta brought him back to Washington -- where Francis had spent a year in the 1960s as an NEA staff member -- as his administrative assistant, and that is how he met Carter.

The former Georgia governor walked into Mineta's office one day, while prospecting for support, and, finding the congressman out, had a conversation with his aide. That night, Francis attended a reception for Carter and offered to help his campaign.

He worked as a volunteer in the 1976 Pennsylvania primary and in the fall on Carter's California campaign.

Two months after Carter became president, Francis became an assistant to Frank Moore in the White House legislative liaison office. A year later, he was made Moore's deputy for coordination of departmental lobbying and the task forces set up to shepherd major pieces of legislation.

Mineta, his old boss, said that Francis "did not know the substantive details of every piece of legislation, but he had a very good intuition about the political implications" of the bills.

Principally an "inside man," rather than a Capitol Hill lobbyist, Francis shifted to Hamilton Jordon's staff last summer, when Jordan became chief of staff, serving as Jordan's liaison with the second-echelon White House aides.

Last October, Jordan moved him again, this time to the job of staff director of the Carter-Mondale campaign committee.