You are the Mayor Daley of your time, the boss of the state-of-the-art political machine of the 1980s, and this is your problem:

You've just run a youngish, photogenic former university athletic director for lieutenant governor, and he's taken what the pros like to call a "good loss" -- a respectable 48 percent of the vote in his first stab at politics against a heavily favored Democrat.

He's a comer, maybe a governor one day. But for now, you need to keep him in the public eye while he waits for the next available election.

Presto! Why not create a non-profit tax-exempt "educational" organization. Have it push a sure-sounds-good idea, like a ceiling on state spending and taxing. Make him chairman. Put him on television to raise money and campaign for the cause.

Consider the advantages over a declared candidacy. The contributions will be tax deductible; there's no limit to what someone can give; no prohibitions against corporate contributions; only the most minimal disclosure requirments.

He'll give up the chairmanship the day he announces for his next race. Meantime, the television exposure has been the political equivalent of money in the bank, all provided courtesy of tax-exempt dollars. Your comer can even, if he wants, draw a taxpayer-subsidized salary for his labors.

What you will have done, in short, is reinvent the political machine, updated for an age of electronic politics. The clubhouse is supplanted by the 30-second spot; the patronage job by the tax code.

This is the machine that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has built.

Helms, the keeper of the flame of the New Right, has seized on opportunities and instruments made available in the election laws and tax codes, stitched them together in ways no one thought of before, and created a far-flung, multi-faceted political empire quite unlike any other in the nation.

It is part think tank, part mail house, part ad production shop, part get-out-the-vote operation -- and all the parts serve each other. It raises money, refines ideas, grooms candidates, rewards friends, punishes enemies, sponsors junkets, lobbies causes.

Helms' adversaries say it also stretches the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. Two committees of Congress are currently trying to sort out the interconnections in the Helms network to uncover any possible improprieties; so far, the senator's name has not been sullied.

"We knew that sooner or later people would come after us," says Thomas Ellis, the Raleigh lawyer and political strategist who helped Helms put together his machine, "so we hired the best legal talent we could find." The network was built with legal advice from the Washington firm of Covington and Burling.

Ellis is fond of saying that the empire "just grew like Topsy." The core of the machine is the National Congressional Club, the richest of the nation's nearly 3,500 political action committees.

Helms and Ellis started the club in 1973 to pay off a $150,000 debt from Helms' first Senate campaign. They hooked up with direct mail entreprenuer Richard Viguerie, who was just then beginning to mine the possibilities of small-donor giving to conservative causes.

The direct mail formula proved to be a gold mine for Helms. He has spent much of his time in Congress introducing fringe amendments on social and foreign policy, getting soundly defeated, and exploiting these quixotic losses to raise money.

The club is expected to bring in more than $10 million for this election, coming off $7 million and $8 million campaigns in 1978 and 1980 respectively. Most of the money arrives in checks of $20 or less.

The beauty of this style of fund-raising is that it is a form of advertising and lobbying and grass roots mobilizing all in one. In 1981, for example, the club claims its fund-raising network generated more than 3 million letters, postcards, telegrams and phone calls to Congress in support of President Reagan's tax and budget proposals.

The work of the club is augmented by five major (plus their spinoffs) non-profit tax-exempt groups, which have raised more than $5 million since 1976, and two nominally-for-profit companies that service the rest of the empire.

Four of the tax-exempt groups are Washington-based -- the Institute of American Relations, the American Family Institute, the Centre for a Free Society, and the Institute on Money and Inflation. They advance conservative foreign policy, economic and social causes with research and advocacy.

The other tax-exempt group, the Coalition for Freedom, is based in Raleigh. Its role is more overtly political: to put out a conservative message through the media. Its activites dovetail with the club's electoral interests and strategies. Consider the case of the promising young ex-athletic director.

His name is William W. Cobey Jr. After he ran a club-backed campaign for lieutenant governor in 1980, he became chairman of the Taxpayers' Educational Coalition (TEC) and began appearing in television ads in the Raleigh area.

The ads, which solicited money to support a drive for state spending and taxing limits, bore a strong resemblance to a standard candidate spot. In one, for example, Cobey's name was mentioned five times and flashed onto the screen four times in the span of 30 seconds.

"The thing that stuck in my throat," says Noel Allen, a Raleigh lawyer and Democratic Party activist, "is that there he was calling for cuts in spending and taxes, but with no qualms at all about using tax dollars to advance his political career."

Cobey stepped down from the TEC this spring, and immediately announced for the 4th Congressional District, which includes Raleigh, the only media market in the state where the TEC ads had appeared. The TEC, meantime, went dormant.

Cobey declines to answer questions about the TEC now. At the time the ads appeared, he denied that the group was a front to advance his political career, but added: "I can see that somebody would say that."

The TEC was not, in fact, an independent entity at all, at least as far as the Internal Revenue Service is concerned. It was a "project" of a tax-exempt group, the Coalition for Freedom, that Thomas Ellis founded in 1979 "exclusively for educational and literary purposes," according to incorporation papers filed with the state.

The TEC's 501c(3) tax status with the IRS prohibits it from allocating any "substantial part" of its activities to "propaganda" or otherwise attempting to influence legislation, and it is not permitted to interfere in any political campaign.

Cobey's financial disclosures show that he received $43,750 in salary from the TEC for the 16 months that he ran the project.

Now that he is a candidate, Cobey is availing himself of the Helms network in other ways.

The National Congressional Club, like all PACs, is limited to giving a candidate a direct contribution of $5,000 per primary and $5,000 in the general. But there are other valuable campaign services.

Cobey has access to the direct mail lists that the club has built up over the past decade -- a treasure trove of about 500,000 regular supporters of conservative causes, 50,000 of them in North Carolina.

Cobey's polling is by Arthur Finkelstein, the New York pollster who works for the club on a regular basis. His campaign manager used to be an aide to club director Carter Wrenn.

His ads are produced by Jefferson Marketing Inc., an advertising, direct mail and consulting corporation that shares a small office building with the club in Raleigh, and that is run by political operatives from past Congressional Club campaigns.

The ads bear the unmistakable Congressional Club imprint. They have taken a sharp turn for the negative in the final weeks of Cobey's campaign against incumbent Rep. Ike Andrews (D-N.C.). A picture of a haggard-looking Andrews is flashed onto the screen, while a voice-over attacks him for having joined his "liberal buddies" in voting against balanced-budget bills seven times in the past six years.

Andrews said he believes his record as a moderate-to-conservative on economic matters will prove solid enough to overcome the Cobey media blitz.

But Andrews' chances were damaged -- irretrievably, in the private view of many Democrats -- by a drunk-driving arrest this month. Cobey's ads have since slackened off on the negatives, focusing instead on his image as a family man and community pillar.

The club is supporting several dozen House and Senate candidates around the country this fall. But as usual, it is saving the most for its home state, where it made its biggest splash in 1980 by plucking university professor John East out of obscurity and turning him into an upset winner over Sen. Robert Morgan (D).

This year the club is backing five challengers in North Carolina -- Cobey; Anne Bagnal, who is opposing Rep. Steven L. Neal; Eugene (Red) McDaniel against Rep. Charles Whitley; Harris Blake against Rep. W.G. Hefner, and Edward Johnson against Rep. Charles Rose.

The club, in supplanting the Republican organization of what is still a heavily Democratic state, has antagonized the mainstream, Chamber of Commerce-style GOP leadership, personified by former governor James Holshouser and Rep. James T. Broyhill, both of whom tangled with Helms for control of the party in a bitter fight in the '70s.

"There's no love among Republicans for the Helms machine," says one prominent statewide Democrat. "They want their party back." So far, however, if that sort of backlash exists, it has not surfaced publicly.

The Senate Ethics Committee began investigating this year whether there were improper links between Helms' official Senate staff and the staffs of the various foundations he has spawned.

A key Helms aide, John Carbaugh, resigned in the spring following disclosures of his dual service with the senator's staff and the Institute of American Relations.

Another investigation is being conducted by the House Government Operations subcommittee on commerce, consumer and monetary affairs, which wants to know if the IAR engaged in illegal lobbying against Senate ratification of SALT II, the strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union. It was operating under the 501c(3) tax exemption that bars any "substantial" activity to influence legislation.