AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland says he will try to persuade his 13.6 million-member organization to abandon its tradition of political neutrality in future presidential primaries.

The nation's top labor leader also said his organization ought to consider the recruitment and marketing of pro-labor candidates, in much the same way that conservative groups have successfully developed politicians of their liking.

Kirkland's announcements at a weekend news conference highlighted concern within the labor federation that the AFL-CIO may have fumbled away political clout by waiting until after national party nominating conventions to endorse a presidential candidate.

The federation backed President Carter, who got clobbered at the polls -- a fact that adds to the agony of the AFL-CIO's internal political post-mortems.

Had the federation backed Carter or some other candidate earlier and more vigorously, that candidate might have stood a better chance on Election Day, Kirkland and other AFL-CIO leaders say.

"I propose to review our entire approach to this nominating process -- to the pre-convention activities -- over the next year or so and see if modifications in our approach to it aren't in order," Kirkland told reporters Friday at a luncheon-news meeting marking the 25th anniversary of the merger of the American Federation of Labor with the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

He said the AFL-CIO must be in a position in the primaries "to exercise a more forceful leadership role in its approach to the kind of candidates and issues that are put forward by the parties."

Kirkland said he expressed his worries about the federation's traditional primary stance at the AFL-CIO's executive board meeting in Chicago last August. The board, in effect, agreed to accept the only candidate it had at that point -- Carter, who had defeated Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) for the Democratic nomination.

"I raised the issue myself," said Kirkland, referring to his comments at the board meeting. "I indicated that I was not happy about the results of the [neutral] posture that we were obliged to take during the crucial nominating process for a national office. I felt that to play an effective role, the AFL-CIO ought to [have been] in an assertive position," he said.

But Kirkland conceded to reporters that the AFL-CIO's neutral primary role may be hard to abandon for the same reason it began -- the relative difficulty in getting the federation's leaders to agree on a primary candidate in a race in which two or more candidates are appealing for labor's support.

"But it ought to be tried," he said of the idea to scrap primary neutrality. "If we can't get a sufficient consensus, then obviously we have to stay in this neutral posture with various [AFL-CIO] affiliates taking their own position.

"But I do think that if we have calm and enlightened deliberation, we might be able to get sufficient support for a unified position behind one of the candidates, even if it might . . . involve a difficult choice among candidates who have good records."

Asked if he believed in "going so far as candidate recruitment and selection" in increasing the AFL-CIO's political aggressiveness, Kirkland said: "Yes, that certainly had to be examined. Certainly . . . if you're going to do anything effective, a key [point] is putting forward the kind of candidates that can attract the support of your membership."

Such a development would require the support of a majority of the federation's leadership, he said. "That's what I would need to authorize the federation" to use its Committee on Political Education (COPE) funds to back any one candidate. He said the federation's action in this regard would not affect the rights of individuals AFL-CIO units to support candidates of their choice -- a contention that is hotly disputed by groups like the National Right to Work Committee and the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF).

WLF, a non-profit public advocacy law group which claims 80,000 members and supporters, last week filed a 15-page petition with Labor Secretary Ray Marshall demanding that union officials disclose the political use of union dues and fees.