It has been a rough 12 months for American men. First, there was the Gender Gap, which, until it narrowed late last fall, indicated that American women -- in noble contrast to men -- were against war and for the underdog. The gap was mostly buried in the landslide of Nov. 6.

But men now find themselves charged with being "takers, not particularly interested in being givers," "selfish." These are serious charges, leveled by a respected accuser, advice columnist Ann Landers.

The basis of Landers' indictment was The Question she posed to her women readers: "Would you be content to be held close and treated tenderly and forget about 'the act'?" This question, according to pollsters, who generally guard their own professional territory, "simply and unfairly set up a straw man to be knocked down." Another pollster put it this way: "The phrasing of the question was unprofessional in the extreme, especially for somebody like Ann Landers."

The pollsters, of course, are absolutely right. The truly amazing thing is that some 25,000 women (of the 90,000 who answered) actually dared to choose the second, purposely unattractive option. On one side was tender treatment, intimacy and, probably, vulnerability. On the other side, presumably bereft of tenderness, was "the act." Because of biased and amateurish phrasing, Ann Landers rigged the results.

And that is actually surprising, because Landers is second to none in her expressed faith in experts. If "Perplexed in Chilicothe" writes about coming home to find her steelworker husband decked out in black garter belt and negligee, Ann Landers replies with both encouragement and the name of The Expert who specializes in the treatment of transvestite trade unionists in the greater Chilicothe area.

As regular readers of Landers' column can testify, her correspondents -- at least the ones who are published -- do not much resemble the kind of folks on a Norman Rockwell cover. So the Landers sample, in spite of its size, is unscientific, not unlike radio talk-show callers, teeming with individuals who have a grievance to register.

Still, there is an important political angle here. Just think if the trailing Mondale campaign could have used Landers' technique in the major polls that invariably showed the Minnesotan way behind. How about a question to voters about which candidate they preferred: Candidate A, who is the son of a Methodist minister, a high school halfback whose teammates called him "Crazy Legs" and who worked his way through law school, or Candidate B, who was the president of a West Coast labor union that was targeted by Communists, who went from the extreme wing of one major political party to the extreme wing of the other political party after his 50th birthday, and who called the program of John F. Kennedy "old Karl Marx"? With a question like that, candidate A might carry 49 states . . . in the poll.

Pollster Paul Maslin does not see the Landers issue going away in a hurry. He predicts instead a "Tender Gap" to replace the Gender Gap. Undoubtedly Democratic candidates will offer testimonials to their tenderness and how all they seek to do, in both their public and private lives, is "to give; not to take, but to be less selfish." It's probably only weeks until the first Republican media campaign with happy, and obviously fulfilled, Republican women explaining how they like their "men tough and medium rare, not so tender that the Soviets can sleep easy nights."

If the prediction is right and the Tender Gap is with us, Ann Landers will have a lot to answer for.