The sweatshirts are emblazoned with the bold message, "The Force Is With You," but the 16 young men and women wearing them are not hardened Star Warriors. All but two are in their 20s, and when they left Washington last weekend to take up their battle stations, they were as eager and nervous as any recruits starting on a tough assignment.

The "Force" they represent is the "Democratic Party Election Force," the new field organization that has been assembled and trained under the command of Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. The professional fund-raisers who are taking up their duties this week in 16 targeted states will be followed in June, in the same states, by 16 campaign staff members.

The $1.2 million program is Kirk's boldest move since becoming party chairman 15 months ago to get the Democratic National Committee back into politics. He puts it in Harvard language, saying the goal is to make the party "a political service delivery system." But what he's really doing is returning the national committee to the basics of politics -- raising money, mounting campaigns and delivering votes.

A number of similar efforts have been announced in the past by previous Democratic chairmen, but they proved to be mostly smoke and mirrors. This one is patterned on the Republican model inaugurated in 1978 by then- GOP national chairman Bill Brock. Appalled by the lack of professionalism and continuity in most state organizations, Brock decided to recruit, train and place his own set of 50 party executive directors in the states and to pay their salaries. It proved to be a key step in upgrading Republican efforts around the country.

It may not seemmuch of an achievement for the Democrats to be copycatting the Republicans, but, believe me, compared with most of the wheel-spinning, ineffectual and irrelevant exercises the DNC has conducted in the last two decades, this represents a giant stride forward.

Kirk's scheme is nothing if not basic. He and Jeff Ely, the program's director, identified 16 target states, all with important Senate and/or gubernatorial races this fall: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota and Vermont.

Each of the states agreed, first, to install a computerized voter file, with consulting and financial assistance from the DNC. (Similar files are also being assembled in 15 other states.) Last month, Ely sent one of the committee's professional fund-raising consultants to each of the states to help develop a state finance plan.

At the same time, he picked from some 200 applicants the 16 fund-raising staffers who finished their two weeks of training last weekend and headed out to their states. A similar set of state campaign programs will be developed by the consultants in May, and that month 16 campaign aides will be trained and dispatched to their assignments.

From now to October, the DNC will pay the salaries of these 32 state party staffers, ranging from $18,000 to $20,000 a year. In most of the smaller states, this investment will double the professional staff in party headquarters.

Kirk has made it clear that for the program to have real value, the professional staffing must continue, ideally with the same people. The chairman of each of the 16 states, therefore, has signed an agreement "to perpetuate this program" at state party expense, at least through the 1988 election.

That is not the only interesting contract clause. In return for his investment, Kirk required written commitments that participating states work with the national party and county parties in direct-mail fund-raising and campaign services and that they agree "not to sponsor, condone, support or lend credence to" any presidential nomination straw vote that might distract from party-building efforts.

Well aware of the virtual walkout on the 1984 national ticket by party and elected officials in several states, Kirk also required the chairmen of the participating states to sign a fresh version of the controversial "loyalty oath." It obliges them "to insist that Democratic candidates who benefit from this program do not run campaigns against, and instead, run with, the national Democratic Party. This means exerting all of the state party's influence and bringing all of the pressure it can to insure that a positive, unified Democratic Party campaign develops. It also means that the state party and state committee shall disagree with and disavow any remarks by a candidate or campaign that attacks the national party."

Writing this requirement may be easier than enforcing it. But it typifies Kirk's low-key approach to the chairmanship that such a sweeping commitment could be obtained with a minimum of controversy or publicity. He got it done because even the southern state party chairmen, who were very suspicious of Kirk's history as a Ted Kennedy aide, now believe him when he says his main goal is "to get the party on an irreversible course toward modernization."

"The Force" is a significant step in that direction, a step that can only be healthy for two- party competition in this country.