The flap between New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) and Vice President Bush over the place of ethnicity in national politics has, if nothing else, supplied some early flavor of what the presidential politics of 1988 might be like.

On the basis of the evidence so far, it could well be passing strange.

So comes the verdict from many political insiders, here and in Washington, who say they have been baffled by what one characterized as the "stupefying" leaps of logic Bush and Cuomo, both veteran campaigners, have engaged in this week, and by the straw men each has contructed to press his case.

To review the bidding: First Cuomo complained he was so fed up with "ethnic slurs" being hurled at the proposition that an Italian American could be elected to national office that he was thinking about running for president just to spite this cynical wisdom; then Bush said here Thursday night that Cuomo's remarks betrayed a shame for his country and a willingness to shortchange the accomplishments of ethnic Americans; then Cuomo said Bush got it backwards, called him some names but said he planned to drop the whole matter because he was satisfied that everyone (save, presumably, the vice president) was properly chastened and agreed with him on the electability of an ethnic candidate.

Now, to begin at the beginning: What ethnic slurs?

Cuomo's smoking gun is a line in a Jan. 7 column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak in which an unnamed southern Democrat (civil rights activist Don Fowler of South Carolina has since identified himself as the culprit) says he doesn't know of "any Marios in the South."

A slur? Or fair comment on the tendency of voters everywhere to identify most readily with candidates most like them?

Few politicians besides Cuomo saw any offense. "All Don was saying is that Coumo doesn't have the perfect resume for the South," said William Carrick, a South Carolinian who is a political aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass). "But it is also true that resumes really don't amount to a warm bucket of spit in politics these days, and everyone knows it."

Democrats have characterized the Cuomo reaction either as a clumsy effort to begin to play the tease about running for president or as the touchy outburst of a politician who may be too sensitive, too self-righteous, too prosecutorial and too parochial for the rigors of a presidential campaign. "Mario treats the rest of the country like it was Mars," said one. "The truth is that not a whole lot of people in the South spend their time worrying about Italians."

Cuomo and his aides characterize the episode in an altogether different light: as a calculated preemptive strike against the emergence -- in the news media and the political community -- of a mindset that says the vowel at the end of Cuomo's name is a political liability. Mission accomplished, they say.

"The whole United States has stood up and said of course Italians can run," the governor said at a news conference in Albany, N.Y., yesterday -- not taking on the question of whether that proposition was ever demonstrably in doubt. "I'm delighted at the response."

If Cuomo stands accused in the political community of concocting his own straw man, Bush seems to have jumped into the discussion so he could pillory the messenger and then steal his message.

"He Cuomo is telling us to ignore the millions of blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians, Latins and Poles who shatttered the bonds of discrimination and built this great country through their hard work and talent," Bush told a New York state Conservative Party fund-raiser.

In fact, Cuomo was saying the opposite, and Bush surely understood this. But the vice president also knew there was not a single Cuomo voter in the ballroom, that his attack would get applause and headlines, that the illogic would be hard to convey in a 30-second television piece and that he would be off and gone in the morning.

"If we raise Cuomo's profile on this a little, we see nothing wrong with that," said one Bush strategist, who asked not to be identifed. "And if we appear tough, that's not bad, either."

With Kennedy having taken himself out of the 1988 presidential contest and with House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) serving out the final months of his tenure, the GOP seems to be shopping for a new devil figure. Today in Washington, Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. called Cuomo the "heir apparent to the left wing of the Democratic Party."

Cuomo seems to relish the attention and isn't one to step back from a fight. "I'm sad for the country," he told the New York Post when informed of Bush's remarks. "His behavior is bizarre -- for a vice president of this great nation to sound so irrational. Thank God President Reagan is well and it's his finger that's on the button. This man would be a menace."

On to 1988.