To run for political office is more often than not the bold act of a strong ego. But even the strongest of egos and the most self-confident of candidates can be badly shaken by an election defeat. For the losing candidate, that defeat can be both personally painful and painfully public.

Still, before every election filing date, citizens line up to become candidates. There is no draft necessary. They are willing to risk rejection and even abuse, at least in part because the campaign offers the candidate the near-unique chance to try and reach people, to move them and maybe to persuade them to act. Not many activities offer a comparable opportunity to communicate here in the last days of the 20th century. In addition, policitcal campaigns are more fun than the World Series.

Obviously, not all candidates view the campaign as such an important adventure. The blow-dry look and the professional candidate schools that recommend it may be new, but the approach and the attitude are old hat. To imitate has always been, politically, more popular and less risky than to initiate.

Knowing you have said what you believe during the campaign does help to console the beaten candidate. So too can kindness in the form of written messages, especially if their sentiments are anything like those received since Nov. 4 by one defeated Democrat:

"Ideals must be passed on and nourished in others if what is valuable in humanity is to be preserved. . . . Thank you for doing that for me" -- A campaign volunteer.

"Your having served has made us all a little bit healthier, safer and more involved with the life of this country and planet" -- A constituent.

"I wouldn't blame you if you did leave public service. However, there are thousands of people like myself who still need you as a conscience" -- A lawyer.

"Participating in your campaign, which was my first, has renewed my faith in democratic ideals" -- Another volunteer.

These letters, and many, many more like them, have recently been received by former Iowa senator John Culver.

Let's establish one fact: John Culver is no plaster saint. As at least a few of his correspondents would no doubt testify, it is frequently easier to be an admirer than a friend of John Culver. Culver and self-doubt have never met. He is argumentative --passionately argumentative. The late Marshall McLuhan would have found Culver altogether too "hot" for the electronic media age in which we live.

At Harvard, fullback Culver won a graduate fellowship to Cambridge University and two draft notices: the first from Selective Service and the other from the National Football League. Culver turned down both in favor of spending 39 months as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. Later, in the Senate, former Marine Capt. Culver would ask about the bizarre circumstances that might prevail after an all-out nuclear attack: "Short of suicide, who would surrender? To whom? How would the message be sent?" Such questions are usually discouraged by the faculty at professional candiate schools.

For any senator, any legislator, the six most difficult words to hear from a colleague whose support is sought are "I want to be with you." In non-legislative language, that translates into something like "Please don't push me because i'm not a free agent on this one."

Shortly after Mike Mansfield's retirement and Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, the Senate Democrats were to choose a majority leader. West Virginia's Bob Byrd, a relentlessly non-idological senator, was the heavy favorite. He had been campaigning assiduously for 10 years.

But that year, Hubert Humphrey, another fellow who was "too hot" for media politics, mounted a challenge to Byrd. Humphrey heard those awful six words from a lot of colleagues he had helped. A few had already traded some self-respect for an important Senate committee assignment.

Culver supported Humphrey publicly, and passionately, because, as he explained, the Senate Democrats should stand for something more than orderly legislative procedures. Culver bet wrong, the wise guys noted. Byrd had the votes.

Culver was never coy or cute. If he had been, he might possibly still be in the Senate. But you have to wonder about the cute guys who got the choice committee assignments from Bob Byrd. Do you think, when their time is up, they will get any letters they'll want to save? Letters like John Culver receives?