If the fellow who's going be elected president in 1988 has a shock of hair slung low over his forehead; if he's a trucker's son; if he chairs his party's caucus in the House of Representatives and was the coauthor of a major flat tax proposal; and if his strategy for becoming the first sitting House member ever to capture the White House involves outhustling all the name brands -- well, by golly, he passed through here just the other day.

His name is Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) -- and his name is Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Each of these look-alikes has been dashing around the country, a minimum of three weekends out of four, laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign that won't formally begin for another two years. Kemp touched down in 24 states in 1985; Gephardt in 30.

Recently, on Kemp's seventh visit to Iowa since the last presidential election and Gephardt's sixth, they found themselves on the same stage here, debating national economic policy to an underwhelmed audience of business and political leaders.

Their speeches made a point that their pedigrees, ambition and timetables obscure: These two eager beavers from the House could hardly be more different.

Kemp, 50, the better known of the two, gave his familiar pitch for lower interest rates and a dollar as good as gold. He told the group that the economy can "grow out from underneath the budget deficit" as long as Congress doesn't "panic and resort to a tax increase." In a short speech, he quoted Emile Zola, Georg Hegel, Thomas Hobbes and Will Durant -- a trademark display of learnedness that some critics take to be the sign of an ex-jock's lingering intellectual insecurity.

He spoke rapidly, used a lot of body English, darted from one subject to another ("Someone needs to tell him not to try to preach the entire gospel in one sermon," remarked Arthur Davis, Iowa Democratic chairman) and was relentlessly upbeat, telling his listeners that "the glass is half full, not half empty." Through it all, he came across as a man who knows.

Gephardt, 45, came across as a man who isn't sure. He opened by ripping Republicans as a bloodless horde of antigovernment Social Darwinists who believe that "if you lose your job, home or farm, that's your problem. You can always pack up and move to the Sun Belt."

But when he got to setting forth his own party's vision of government, he grew vague and tentative, resorting to words such as "catalyst" and "partnership," and sounding very much like the Eagle scout he used to be. "The team that won [the Super Bowl] was the team that had the best cooperation," he said at one point, an observation that seems unlikely to win converts in any audience that does not regularly watch Sesame Street.

"I don't think anybody is going to remember what either of them had to say," John Chrystal, president of Banker's Trust, one of the state's largest banks, said afterward. "It was disappointing."

It's probably a mistake to make too much of this tepid reception. Iowa is still in deep recession -- farm land has lost 55 percent of its value in the past five years, 30 percent in the last year alone -- and visiting politicians who don't deal specifically with these issues (and the two were not asked to) aren't likely to win many plaudits.

Yet the response also suggests that all the road work Kemp and Gephardt can get in between now and 1988 will be well-spent. John Maxwell, an Iowan who heads Kemp's political action committee, Campaign for Prosperity, noted that his boss "likes to reach out and grab a crowd," and that sometimes he has difficulty with "unemotional" audiences. Kemp's dynamism and exuberance make him a big hit on the conservative circuit; his challenge over the next two years will be to find a style that goes over well when he isn't preaching to the choir.

Gephardt's problem is different: He is a man with no dogma, but also no sharply defined message. He isn't bashful about admitting it, either. "I'm not there yet," he said in an interview. "I need to spend more time at it. Keep traveling around, thinking, talking, listening, reading."

His earnest, boy-next-door personality and his strawberry-blond good looks make Gephardt an instantly likable candidate. And if his message is not honed, his method is. His strategy for 1988 is a carbon copy of Jimmy Carter's of 1976: Outhustle everyone in Iowa, make the big splash out of obscurity in the early caucus there, then move to the head of the Democratic field with some wins in the South.

A year ago, Gephardt helped form the Democratic Leadership Council, a sort of safe house for moderates from the South and West (he's from St. Louis) who don't want to be too closely identified with the Democratic National Committee. It has been a vehicle for speechmaking in the South and around the country, and for meeting the sort of fund-raisers who will come in handy in a presidential campaign.

Around the same time, he also formed his political action committee, the Effective Government Committee, which has seven professional staffers -- of whom five have extensive experience in Iowa. The director, Bill Romjue, ran the Iowa effort for Carter in 1980 and for Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) during the early stages of the Coloradoan's 1984 campaign.

Local talent makes a difference. Gephardt's itinerary on his recent trip to Iowa ought to be enshrined in a syllabus of Political Scheduling 101. Day One began with breakfast with Chrystal, the banker, then a meeting with Lt. Gov. Bob Anderson and the statehouse Democratic leaders; then an informal lunch at the statehouse to brief Democratic legislators on Gramm-Rudman-Hollings; then the speech at Drake University to the business and political audience; then private meetings with a few county chairmen; then a stop at a weekly state AFL-CIO meeting, then dinner with Jim Gannon and David Yepsen, editor and political writer, respectively, of the Des Moines Register, the state's most influential newspaper.

Day Two began with a 7:30 a.m. stop at the hospital bed of Joe Shanahan, a young political operative who had worked on some local campaigns in Des Moines and whom Gephardt had never met. Then he drove to Iowa State University in Ames for a three-hour briefing from a half-dozen professors on the farm economy. Next came lunch at a local deli in Ames with a dozen Story County activists before flying east.

At this early stage, Gephardt is shooting not for endorsements, but good will. "We're human, we love to be courted," said Davis. "The personal touch now will definitely make a difference later on."

Early forays pay off in other ways, too. "He's getting better," remarked state House Minority Leader Mary Chambers (D) of New Hampshire -- that other first-in-the-nation state -- who has seen Gephardt up close three times in the past year.

Imagine: It's two years out, you're not even a blip on the national screen, but somebody out there already thinks you're getting better.