DES MOINES, AUG. 23 -- A televised debate among seven Democratic presidential hopefuls here today produced something that no candidate in this little-known field had yet been able to lay claim to on his own: a consensus early front-runner.

He is Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, and his status was bestowed in the backhanded way that debates typically sort out such matters. He was the candidate the others were most eager to attack.

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) led the others in accusing Dukakis of speaking in generalities, of bringing a regional perspective to economic policy issues that ignored the plight of farm and oil areas, and of basing his budget deficit reduction proposal on grossly inflated estimates of how much revenue could be raised through a tax amnesty and aggressive new collection policy.

"I enjoyed it," said Dukakis, who chose not to return fire either during the two-hour debate sponsored by the Iowa Broadcast News Association or afterward.

"I guess we're gaining," his national political director, Paul Tully, said, smiling broadly. "We seem to be of interest to a whole lot of people."

The most interested rival was Gore, who took advantage of the format and seating arrangement -- on every round of questions, his turn to respond came immediately after Dukakis' -- to strike an aggressive tone.

"The problem with what Gov. Dukakis has just said {about agriculture policy} is that it contains no specifics," Gore began, in responding to the first round of questions. He then detailed his own proposals for enlarging the Conservation Reserve Program and expanding the role of the Agricultural Extension Service. On successive rounds, the pattern continued: "With all due respect to my friend from Massachusetts," he began in answer to a question on small-business development.

Most of the differences between Gore and Dukakis were more tactical than ideological. Nevertheless, as the five other candidates on stage seemed to realize, Gore had found a way to wrap the debate around himself -- a coup for a long shot in a seven-way confrontation.

"If I get to 52 percent in the polls in New Hampshire, will you start attacking me like you have Mike Dukakis today?" Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) kidded Gore near the end, with a tone of mock envy that nevertheless seemed to convey a tip of the hat.

Gephardt and Sens. Paul Simon of Illinois and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware took more indirect pokes at Dukakis on his call for more aggressive tax collection.

Dukakis talked of pursuing $110 billion a year in uncollected revenues; Biden ridiculed that figure and said a more realistic projection from increased tax enforcement would be $2 billion. And they characterized his perspective as "regional" because he is from a state whose prosperity has been fueled by increased defense spending and, his opponents said, does not understand the economic suffering of the Midwest.

In the post-debate session, however, the focus was very much on the Gore thrust, and the reviews were mixed. "He kept swinging and missing, but Dukakis kept ducking anyway," former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt's press secretary, Michael McCurrey, said. "He was too frontal about it. He came off too opportunistic," said Gephardt's spokesman, Mark Johnson.

A more neutral observer, Iowa Democratic Chairman Bonnie Campbell, said she thought Gore had helped himself. "He got into the race rather late {and} he hasn't shown up well in the polls, so I guess he felt he needed to do something," she said. "I think he showed himself to be aggressive, smart, tough and very specific in a way that will inure to his benefit."

"People want a fighter for president," Gore said, explaining after the debate that he chose the attack strategy on his own, without input from advisers, after he learned that the seating arrangement would have him following Dukakis.

"I tried to think about ways to make the debate interesting," he continued. Asked whether he was trying to draw a liberal-moderate contrast between Dukakis and himself, Gore demurred. He said that he "wouldn't know" whether Dukakis was too liberal "until we hear more specifics from him."

In fact, there were virtually no ideological differences on economic and agricultural policy among the seven who participated in their second televised debate of the campaign.

The participants were Babbitt, Biden, Dukakis, Gephardt, Gore, Jesse L. Jackson and Simon. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who will decide next month whether to join the race, was not invited because she did not have the polling support or the declared candidacy required by debate sponsors. Women's groups and several candidates protested her exclusion with telegrams late last week, but Schroeder did not press the point and was in Europe on a long-planned family vacation.

The debate was held in front of an audience of about 500 in a concrete dormitory on the grounds of the Iowa State Fair.

Jackson, who chose not to join the Dukakis-bashing, drew the spotlight with his oratorical flourishes.

"How many of you in the audience own a VCR?" he asked during his opening statement, and then waited briefly as many hands in the room went up. "Not one VCR is made by an American company," he said.

"Now, how many of you personally own an MX missile?" he continued. After the laughter subsided, Jackson said: "My point is, we're making more of what the world needs less of."

Jackson said the "dominant issue of our day is economic violence" and he faulted the "multinational barracudas" for exporting jobs and destroying small businesses. To reduce the budget deficit, he called for cuts in the MX missile and Strategic Defense Initiative programs, for increased payments from Europe for North Atlantic Treaty Organization defenses, and for making the wealthy "pay their fair share of taxes. They have a cushion. They owe it to America."

Babbitt entered the debate anxious to redeem himself for what he acknowledged was a poor showing in the Democrats' first televised encounter in Houston on July 1. His mannerisms were more polished this time; the distracting head-bobbing of Houston was gone.

On substance, Babbitt stood out by stressing what he calls "workplace democracy" -- a set of proposals to encourage profit-sharing and other means of increasing workers' stake in their company's success and to discourage "golden parachutes" for executives, "greenmail" and other corporate behavior that can decrease profits and employe morale.

Babbitt also spoke out against a farm production control bill sponsored by Gephardt, calling it an "isolationist measure that would destroy American markets abroad and drive up prices at the grocery store." He called instead for targeting farm subsidy payments to family farmers and denying subsidies to corporate farmers.

Simon, in keeping with his self-description as the "old-fashioned" Democrat in the race, called for reviving America's manufacturing base by investing in research, education and infrastructure. "This whole concept that we're becoming an information economy is flawed," he said.

Biden said the most promising way to attack the nation's budget and trade deficits is to "call the leading bankers in America in {to the White House} and tell them to write off {their} loans to Third World countries and stretch out the principal repayments, and give those economies a chance to breathe." He said that would open up foreign markets.

Dukakis stressed his executive experience, noting he was the only public official in the race who had balanced nine budgets. His demeanor was reserved; his only response to the attacks was a joking comment that he hoped he had found one issue on which he and Gore agreed.

In the nearly four months since former senator Gary Hart of Colorado dropped out of the race, Dukakis has raised the most money and assembled the most experienced staff of any of the contenders. Still, he barely makes it out of single digits in national polls. So while he may have been the front-runner on today's stage, most of the political observers here said they believe the race has a long way to go before anyone will have to fully face the mixed blessings of that position.