The proposition was simple: gather some wealthy southerners, feed them prime rib and brandy, and show them how they can start feeling good again about the national Democratic Party.

"In this room," Robert Jordan, lieutenant governor of North Carolina, assured three dozen guests at an intimate $1,000 fund-raiser, "we have national Democrats who know where the political center is."

Then, in a faintly conspiratorial half-whisper, came Jordan's kicker: "We also may have the next president of the United States."

That's boilerplate fund-raising hype, but in this candlelit southern setting, where the phrase "national Democrat" is usually tossed around as an epithet, it set off a ping of excitement, perhaps even mystery.

Four such Democrats -- Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Lawton Chiles (Fla.) -- were in the room, and none of the diners could be sure which one Jordan was talking about.

Which was precisely the point.

Welcome to the new-look Democratic Party -- a party determined above all else to be "of the political center" -- and say hello to a new generation of Democratic centrists who are busy preening for 1988.

On his own, each of these '88 "mentionables" would have some trouble filling a firehouse with potential voters outside his home base. So they've banded together, along with the likes of Govs. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Charles S. Robb of Virginia, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Sen. Dale Bumpers (Ark.), into a sort of political road show -- a touring company of like-minded presidential and vice-presidential long shots.

They call themselves the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and since midsummer, they have been following the imperatives of the Electoral College map with a series of headline-grabbing campaign-style swings through Texas, Florida, California and North Carolina.

Their mission, in the words of Nunn, is twofold: "To lay a foundation, intellectually and politically, on which a moderate Democrat can run for president in 1988 . . . and to make it safe for candidates at the state and local level to run as Democrats."

They freely acknowledge that they are a long way from defining, issue by issue, exactly where the center is. But one year after the Democrats' 49-state presidential drubbing, these moderates seem poised to capture the soul of their beleaguered party on the strength of the idea of centrism.

This is not a universally applauded development. "Unfortunately, the notion that we have to become a party of crypto-Republicans is selling like hotcakes," says Victor Fingerhut, a longtime labor-union pollster and strategist.

"If the meek shall inherit the Earth, these timid voices will be land barons," adds Jim Hightower, the Democratic commissioner of agriculture in Texas, who argues that an out-of-power party makes a strategic mistake when it tries to recapture the national agenda with an offering of me-too-isms. He is one of a band of Democrat populists who want their party to build a new platform around good old-fashioned little-guy-versus-big-guy economic conflicts.

But other liberal forces within the party, if they haven't exactly thrown in with the DLC, have at least begun to feel the same tug of moderation.

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has been hellbent on convincing the national press that, his 1984 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention notwithstanding, he's nobody's liberal. The $2.1 billion tax cut he proposed for New Yorkers earlier this year helps make the point.

Meantime, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) veered sharply toward the political center this fall by voting in favor of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction bill, on the rationale that budget balancing has now become the nation's top domestic priority.

Kennedy's vote drew heavy flak from his hometown paper, the Boston Globe, and from his supporters in the party's liberal and labor wings, who preferred him in his sail-against-the-wind mode. "He made a serious mistake," said William Wynn, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. "He's not a conservative. He and people like him are voting out of fear, not conviction."

The tremors set off by the Kennedy vote are telling. Party activists understand that it isn't the think tanks or policy councils that will define a new Democratic agenda; it's the 1988 presidential candidates. If Kennedy, the presumptive standard bearer of the left, spends the next few years inching toward the middle, it means that the entire intra-party debate is likely to slide a few notches rightward with him.

This prospect may distress some, but it delights others. "The vote of Sen. Kennedy for that amendment is one of the the most hopeful signs of an evolutionary process that is going on in our party . . . as we cross, however uncertainly, into some post-New Deal configuration," says Babbitt.

The other undeclared front-runner for 1988, Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) has also kept his distance from the DLC, which at one level he no doubt must view as an incubation chamber for the "next Gary Hart." Like Hart, the DLC crowd talks about economic growth rather than redistribution, about reforming the military rather than reducing it, and about the need for "new ideas" to fire the imagination of a new generation of voters.

But Hart doesn't need the national soapbox the DLC provides; his 1984 near-miss gives him one all to himself. Besides, he's been busy this year trying to whittle down his 1984 campaign debt (still in excess of $3 million and proving more formidable than he had anticipated); figuring out whether to run for reelection to the Senate in Colorado in 1986 (the smart money says he won't); and launching his own think tank, the Center for a New Democracy, which he hopes will protect him from the "Where's the beef?" query of 1984.

Moreover, Hart, by political instinct, is not a coalition leader. And the party's emerging generation of young centrists are not loyal followers; they each want their own private franchises on "new ideas."

These elected officials, mostly from the South and West -- and derisively dubbed the "white male caucus" by some quarters of the party -- decided earlier this year to create a political safe-house a few paces outside the rainbow-colored tent of the Democratic National Commiteee. Old party hands figured the faintly maverick enterprise would not last past the summer.

To the contrary, it has flourished, shrewdly playing off the chemistry between new ideas and new presidential faces. "We're not a deep think tank," says DLC executive director Alvin From, who heads a staff of four with a budget of $400,000. "What we do best is get our message around the country. We're the Federal Express of the Democratic Party."

DLC dog-and-pony shows involve lunches or dinners with business leaders and party activists, meetings with editorial boards, press conferences and fund-raisers. Crowds have been good, especially in the South, where there is a palpable hunger for a national party that is not liberal.

Their ranks keep growing; at latest count, 102 elected officials, including 10 governors and 77 congress members had paid the $1,000 DLC membership fee. And this fall, the DLC put out its first issue paper, a tract on strategies for international economic competitiveness. By contrast, the DNC's officially sanctioned policy group, the Democratic Policy Commission, has been plagued by financial, organizational and consensus problems, and has yet to produce a word.

DLC members make a point of saying they are not in any kind of competition with the DNC, but in institutional terms, they are filling something of a calculated vacuum created by Democratic Party Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. (whose election most of the DLC members had opposed).

Kirk has spent a low-profile first year trying to persuade the party's two most loyal voting blocs -- organized labor and blacks -- that, for the good of the party, they should stop acting like special-interest caucuses. It has been a hard sell. Labor has said thanks, but no thanks to Kirk's suggestion that they forego an early presidential endorsement. Jesse L. Jackson, meanwhile, is still contending that the party rules are stacked against candidates like him and has been putting out hints about a third-party effort in 1988.

While Kirk must hunker down and grapple with these family feuds, the DLC is free to figure out how to reinvent a Democratic Party message.

That's no easy task, either. Their problem is daunting at two levels: the broad and the particular. When an "out" party tries to regroup by moving toward the center, it gives away the chance for a message that has clarity and sweep. From 1976 to 1980, the Republicans spent their "out" years moving toward their extreme, and they came away at the end of the exercise with a bumper sticker that turned out to be right for the times -- "Get the Government Off Our Back."

Democrats believe, with support from polling results, that voters are ready for a message with more nuance. "Government," says Gephardt, has "an important but limted role" in managing an economy undergoing vast structural changes. But is anyone going to wear a campaign button that proclaims "Important but limited"?

When the DLC gets into specific issues, it runs into plain old consensus problems. This summer, during a DLC blitz on California, Babbitt said that because of the national deficit, federal aid to cities and states should be limited only to programs for the needy; all other forms of aid, he said, were "slush funds" that ought to be eliminated.

"Slush funds?" shot back San Francisco Mayor (and DLC member) Dianne Feinstein, who was in the room at the time. "Name one slush fund." A two-day public debate ensued, with Feinstein declaring herself "singularly unimpressed" with the Babbitt message.

There have been similar bumps and bruises on the trade issue. This summer Gephardt coauthored legislation that called for retaliation against countries that did not reduce their trade imbalances with the United States within a fixed time. But the DLC's own policy paper on trade says that 80 percent of the trade deficit is the product of internal economic conditions, not foreign barriers. "Even if Japan opened all its markets, we'd still have a hell of a problem," says Chiles.

So where do the DLC Democrats stand on trade? All over the lot -- approximately where they are on tax reform, deficit reductions and the defense department budget.

This does not especially trouble them. "There is always going to be a mixed message when you are trying to craft a new approach," says Gephardt, the DLC's founder and its most active road man, having campaigned in 40 states in the past year, both for himself and the DLC.

Biden goes further. In his stock speech, he quotes the German poet Goethe to audiences, reminding them that "Faust lost the liberty of his soul when he said to the passing moment, 'Stand, thou art so fair.' In the mid-1970s, we as a party tried to say, 'Stand, we got it just right.' We became afraid to experiment. We became afraid to take on our own interest groups. We became the party of the status quo, the party of government."

Biden believes that the Democrats do not need a fully realized new agenda, at least not yet. They merely need to recapture their instinct to innovate.

"1988 is going to be like 1960," he says. "We're going to have in the White House a popular president with set of a failed policies. Back then, the message from John Kennedy was a simple one . . . . He said, 'We can do better. We have to get the country moving again.' "