An article Sunday reported incorrectly that Paul G. Kirk Jr. was opposed by most southern and western members of the Democratic National Committee in his election as its chairman. Kirk received a seven-vote majority among DNC members from the western states.

Last week's meeting of the Democratic National Committee showed that the opposition party has come out of its landslide election defeat doubtful about its future, divided over its political direction and deeply ambivalent about its growing dependence on its allies in organized labor.

After three days of meetings highlighted by the elevation of Washington lawyer Paul G. Kirk Jr. from party treasurer to chairman of the DNC, the prevailing mood of discouragement was expressed at Friday night's getaway reception by Arizona national committee member Lorraine Frank. "One more meeting like this," she said, "and I'm going home and hang myself."

Frank's comment was more candid than what most of the 500 committee members and party operatives gathered at the Shoreham Hotel told reporters on the record, but it reflected the frustration that many of them voiced privately after three days of infighting over scores of party posts, ranging from the pettiest titles to the chairmanship.

Kirk tried to lift the mood, promising in his first speech as chairman that "today marks the end of the soul-searching, the end of the identity crisis of the Democratic Party . . . [and] the day the Democratic Party goes back to work to reclaim its rightful and legitimate heritage as the party that speaks to the shared aspirations and future dreams of most Americans."

But his words seemed unable to fill the void at the party's center -- a vacuum made conspicuous by the virtual absence of any reference to either of the party's most recent nominees, Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale.

While trying to put them out of mind, Democrats kept warning each other that the Republicans under President Reagan are on the march.

"We have lost four of the last five presidential elections," Virginia Democratic chairman Alan A. Diamonstein told the DNC.

"We no longer control the Senate, and the Republicans are coming after us in the state legislatures. These are not ordinary times."

Unlike the attitude that prevailed at a similar meeting four years ago, the Democrats no longer believe they can count on an automatic comeback from a staggering presidential defeat.

In the two 1985 gubernatorial elections, New Jersey's incumbent Republican, Thomas H. Kean, enjoys "Reagan-scale approval ratings," according to one top state Democrat, while the disarray in the Virginia Democratic Party may open the way for Republicans to capture the seat of retiring Gov. Charles S. Robb.

No longer do Democratic Party pros assume that they will regain the Senate majority in 1986, when 22 Republicans and 12 Democrats are on the ballot.

Democratic officials from such states as Alabama and Wisconsin confided to their colleagues that such supposedly vulnerable freshman Republican senators as Jeremiah Denton and Robert W. Kasten Jr. enjoy high poll ratings. Democrats from Missouri and Vermont expressed concern about holding the Senate seats in those states.

Increasingly, the Democrats cite the Republicans as the model they must emulate in the political basics.

Sharon Pratt Dixon of the District of Columbia, the new party treasurer, said, "We have to learn to conduct our party like a business. We have to get the American voters to invest . . . . The Republican Party does this four or five times better than we do."

"The Republicans have professionalism," former Arizona governor Sam Goddard chimed in. "They buy it and use it. We are sick. We are losing our capacity to make our party work, and as long as we just sit here and do 1930s politics, we're going to deserve what we get."

But there are deep divisions among the Democrats about their future course -- divisions that were shown clearly in the vote by which Kirk defeated his last challenger, former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford, who gained a last-minute endorsement from the third major contender, California Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

The Sanford-Pelosi alliance dominated in the South and West, while Kirk got most of his votes from the Northeast and Midwest.

But the contest split party officials in two-thirds of the states, creating fresh enmities. Even more significant was the difference in direction of the national party officials, particularly the members of Congress, who lined up behind Kirk for the most part, and the state and local officials, who were mostly behind Sanford.

Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, one of the leaders of the Sanford effort, described it as "the first skirmish" in what he called "an ideological struggle," between those who believe the traditional Democratic coalition can be expanded to majority size by emphasizing traditional Democratic issues, and those who think the party must change its message to regain power.

While Kirk has pledged to create a party policy forum, where governors, mayors and state legislators can join members of Congress in debating that future, much of the opposition to him was based on the belief -- which may or may not be valid -- that he shares the traditional liberal ideology of his longtime boss, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Kirk has pledged his neutrality in the 1988 nomination race, but Kennedy's recent highly publicized trips to Ethiopia and South Africa fed speculation that Kirk's candidacy was part of a Kennedy move for 1988.

Kirk's problem in portraying himself as an independent political figure was increased when organized labor weighed in heavily on his behalf. The unionists originally planned to keep a low profile, hoping that Babbitt, Robb and their allies among the governors and younger members of Congress could come up with a nationally prominent consensus figure for the post.

But by early January, with Kirk's drive stalled short of a majority and Pelosi the only alternative, union leaders decided to put their muscle behind the former Kennedy aide.

Largely as a reaction to that decision, southerners and party moderates persuaded Sanford to make a late-starting bid, and the regional-philosophical lines were sharply drawn.

In Friday's vote, a top AFL-CIO official said, 40 of the 41 labor members on the DNC voted for Kirk. So did some Democratic politicians who decided, as former New York chairman Joseph Crangle said, "I can't vote against Leon Lynch of the Steelworkers" and a number of other union officials he named. Clearly, labor accounted for much of Kirk's 52-vote majority over Sanford.

Nonetheless, unionists such as Sam Fishman, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, protested to reporters about stories suggesting that Kirk was "labor's guy," and Kirk himself told reporters in a postelection news conference that the influence of labor "has to be more balanced" by other groups.

"The trade union movement has made a tremendous contribution to our society and our party . . . but we have to have others," Kirk said. "That was a lesson of 1984," when Mondale, despite labor's early endorsement, was badly beaten.

Many DNC members said it remains to be seen whether Kirk will have the political or financial independence from his union backers to chart a course for the party that diverges significantly from labor leaders' wishes.

But he gave an early demonstration of his independence from another caucus -- blacks -- by declining to intervene to prevent the defeat of Mayor Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Ind., by another black, Illinois state comptroller Roland Burris, for the party vice chairmanship traditionally reserved for a black.

Hatcher, who had served as chairman of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, was the endorsed favorite of the DNC black caucus, and Kirk's neutrality enraged caucus leaders.

But it also sent a clear signal that under Kirk, the DNC would deal with a wide range of black elected and party officials, and not just with Jackson and his lieutenants.

Jackson made no visible effort to "work" the DNC meetings, showing up only late in the evening of the final social event Friday. He remonstrated with Kirk about Hatcher's defeat, and is expected to be heard when a new party rules commission reexamines the delegate selection procedures for 1988.

Former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, who was Jackson's choice to head that commission, reportedly still is a possibility for appointment to the post by Kirk, even though the new chairman said he had made no decision.

But whoever heads it, the commission is expected to be dominated by "regulars" picked through the party's regional caucuses.

The advance speculation is that the commission will only tinker with the 1984 rules, not radically revise them to make it easier for underdog candidates such as Jackson to get delegates.

Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who joined Jackson in protesting the 1984 rules until last summer's convention, has signaled that he no longer is going to press for major reforms -- an indication that he recognizes that his own campaign perhaps puts him in a position to benefit in 1988 from rules that were tailored to help well-established candidates.

With Kennedy deliberately staying out of sight so as not to embarrass Kirk, and Hart and Jackson playing a low-key role, most of the presidential speculation at the meetings centered on New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

Cuomo gave an early and strong endorsement to Pelosi, an act seen as partly personal friendship, partly an overture to women in the party, and partly a way for Cuomo to gain access to the powerful network of California contributors of which she is a part.

But when she threw her support to Sanford, Cuomo went along, delivering 15 of the 16 New York votes to the North Carolina moderate. Asked why, one New York Democrat said, "It's simple: It's ABK -- anybody but Kirk, or Kennedy.