DES MOINES -- When Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) took his turn to speak at the annual Polk County Democrats' steak fry, the audience of several hundred Democrats was downright rude. In contrast to the token gestures of silence for the other candidates, none of the conversations in the huge 4H Building stopped as the presidential candidate hurriedly read through his prepared text.

"These people are nasty," a key Gore aide remarked.

Gore himself, however, has offended some Iowa Democrats by adopting a southern strategy that assumes the strong likelihood of defeat in this key state, downgrading the importance of the February caucus that is the pride and joy of politicians here.

Gore's strategy is an attempt to sustain a presidential candidacy while taking into account the possibility -- even the probability -- of losing not only Iowa but also perhaps all six primaries and caucuses to be held before a tidal wave of national convention delegates are choosen on southern-dominated "Super Tuesday," March 8.

In a series of debates, Gore has successfully staked out the political right on defense and foreign policy issues. It is a tactic that appears to have strong appeal in some sections of the South, but it clearly has alienated a significant portion of the liberal constituency of Democratic caucus-goers in this state.

"Gore has taken himself out of Iowa by moving to the right," said Michael Lux, former deputy national director of the defunct campaign of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). Lux and Biden Iowa manager David Wilhelm had considered supporting the Gore campaign after Biden's withdrawal, but rejected the move after Gore's performances in a number of debates. "With the direction Gore had gone in the last few weeks, he hurt his chances," Wilhelm said.

Gore's gamble is that he may be forced to survive without victory from Feb. 8 to March 7 as 144 delegates to the Democratic National Convention are chosen in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Maine and Wyoming, along with a nonbinding Vermont primary.

The long-shot premise of Gore's strategists is that the collective judgment of the news media and key political participants will be suspended until March 8, when 20 states go to the polls, including southern and border states that will select 1,173 delegates out of the total of 4,160 to go to the Democrats' Atlanta convention.

"If you're Al Gore, yes, it is possible" to sustain a candidacy to March 8 without a win in any of the midwestern and northern states holding contests before then, said Fred Martin, Gore's manager.

"This is a new ball game. The rules, the calendar, are different," Martin said, pointing out that 14 southern states will go to the polls on Super Tuesday, including Gore's Tennessee, compared with only three on the same day in 1984. "Fourteen-hundred delegates are chosen between the 8th and the 12th of March as opposed to 200 chosen from the 8th of February to the 5th of March. Anyone who can count realizes that you're not going to draw a conclusion about a candidate who hails from the South and is strong in the South before the South has a chance to vote."

Martin's assessment is disputed by a number of his competitors.

William Carrick, a South Carolinian managing the campaign of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), said Gore's southern strategy has been "tried several times and never has worked. The truth is if someone doesn't have any momentum coming out of the early states, they are not going to be able to finance a campaign on Super Tuesday. That's a fact. There are some budgetary realities that are pretty stark."

Paul Maslin, consultant to Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), said the one Democrat in recent years "who brought the South back in a major way" was Jimmy Carter in 1976. But, Maslin contended, "he did it by winning in the North."

Robert Beckel, who managed Walter F. Mondale's successful nomination drive in 1984, said Gore "cannot continue at the bottom of the pack, go South and expect the band to be playing Dixie when he gets there . . . . He cannot go through the North and get beaten everywhere and then expect to relive the battle of Manassas as soon as he gets South."

But the strategy has already begun to pay off in the South, where a random check of Democratic Party officials suggested a growing base of support for Gore.

"Gore? I think he is definitely a potential winner," said Jim Van Hecke Jr., chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, who said he plans to stay neutral.

Tom Murphy, speaker of the Georgia House, said "I have to admit I'm leaning toward Gore."

Similarly, Steven A. Patterson, Mississippi Democratic chairman, said, "I am not committed to Gore yet, but I do indeed like Gore." Flordia Chairman Charles Whitehead said, "I want a nominee I can openly support, knowing he has a good chance of winning . . . . If anyone is moving in that direction I think it would be Gore."

Gore received a strong boost last week when the centrist Democratic Leadership Council released a survey of just under 300 men and women who had supported President Reagan and voted for Democratic Senate candidates in 1986, swing voters who are key targets of both parties. After watching a Democratic presidential debate, these voters said they were most favorably impressed by Gore.

While a number of southern officials were lukewarm toward Gore, some of those impressed by his recent debate tactics privately voiced concerns about his long-range strength.

"He's doing the right thing now," one southern Democrat said, "but as a House member and senator, he's been more concerned with elitist issues like population growth in the next century than the gut economic issues that get {white} Democrats back in their party. I just don't know if he can sell in the long run."

Only one Democratic Party leader publicly voiced a negative note: Bill Bullard, Oklahoma Democratic chairman, said Gore's aggressive tactics in the debates have "received mixed reviews in Oklahoma. It's made people talk about him . . . but there is one thing we don't want to do: chew each other up. There are some who are clearly distressed by the fact that Gore is breaking that sense that the Republicans are the enemies. It cuts two ways."