The Democratic National Committee, hard pressed for cash with the off-year elections only three months away, is laying off about one-sixth of its 90-member staff and cutting back on travel expenses.

The moves are part of an effort to cut overhead about $50,000 a month at the committee's Washington headquarters and shift resources into a small-scale television advertising campaign and into gubernatorial races, according to DNC spokesman Robert Neuman.

From 12 to 15 people will be laid off, seven of whom were hired to organize the party's midterm convention last month in Philadelphia, he said. Others worked on the party's reapportionment effort, and in recruiting and training Democratic candidates.

The DNC, Neuman said, is trying to find jobs for those laid off in various campaigns across the country.

The cutbacks come just as the fall election campaigns are gearing up.

The Republican National Committee has a staff of 360, and isn't planning any layoffs, said William Greener, the RNC's communications director. "We're basically at full speed."

Unlike its Republican counterpart, the DNC is chronically riddled with money problems. It has an annual budget of $8.5 million, compared with $35 million for the RNC.

The committee has tried to close this gap by mounting a massive direct mail campaign in hopes of building up a list of 400,000 regular donors.

But this effort has gone slower than some party leaders had expected. The list has only 160,000 names, and the party is pouring all its direct mail receipts back into prospecting for new donors.

Neuman said the cutbacks reflect a desire on the part of DNC Chairman Charles T. Manatt to invest whatever money it has directly into campaigns rather than building a "top-heavy Washington headquarters."

As part of this effort, the committee plans to mount a $1 million television ad campaign during September in 35 to 50 small cities, primarily in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa, where Republican governors are either retiring or are vulnerable.

This is a response to a national $10 million ad campaign already launched by Republicans.

The DNC also is increasing its contributions to governors' races, where the party hopes to make major gains this fall. Originally, it had planned to funnel $400,000 into these campaigns. That will be increased by at least $100,000 and may be as much as $1 million. The contrast between the two committees provides another example of the major financial difference between the two parties at the national level.

The Republican Party apparatus--the national committee, congressional campaign committees and auxillary groups--plans to outspend the Democratic apparatus by 10 to 1 in House, Senate, gubernatorial and state legislative races this fall.

In addition, Republicans maintain an extensive research operation, a mammoth computer center and a modern television production studio. These services and the results of public opinion polls paid for by the party are available to GOP candidates.