BIRMINGHAM -- Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.) has begun gathering endorsements and momentum among white elected officials in the South, getting support from politicians who are joining him in the gamble that he can withstand a poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire and still jump-start his campaign on "Super Tuesday," March 8.

The strategy defies the lessons of modern nomination history, which hold that a candidate must either win or exceed expectations in the two high-profile opening round contests. However, Gore will call into question a process that invests such importance in two small states during a speech Saturday night at Iowa's largest political event of 1987, the state party's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner.

No matter how the attack is received in Des Moines, it's likely to strike a sympathetic chord among the southern statehouse leaders who created Super Tuesday to give their region more clout in choosing the Democratic Party's 1988 presidential nominee. Of the 20 contests on March 8, 14 will be in southern or border states.

"Iowa and New Hampshire were a knockout for some folks in 1984," said Alabama Democratic Chairman John Baker, "but there is no way, with 20 states coming up, people are going to let two states wipe them out this time. Nobody here expects Gore to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire."

Despite those low expectations, Gore has picked up the endorsement here of Alabama Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom, Speaker of the House Jimmy Clark, and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Ryan deGraffenried. Dozens of state legislators are expected to follow suit. "I think Gore is probably going to lead the ticket in Alabama," said Baker, who is officially neutral.

Gore's surge here has been replicated in North Carolina, where this week he gained the support of 28 state legislators; in Arkansas, where two statewide elected officials backed him; in South Carolina where he won a straw poll at the state party convention last week; in Florida, where about two dozen state House members closely tied to Speaker Jon Mills lined up behind Gore's candidacy, and in Kentucky, where the state Senate majority leader, the agriculture commissioner and the past party chairman have endorsed him. He has across-the-board support in his home state.

A check of party leaders in the South shows that Gore's gains have been most damaging to the candidacy of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who has been trying to build an organizational stronghold through his network of House colleagues.

"Gore's momentum has come at Gephardt's expense," said Ed Martin, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, noting that the two are competing for the same moderate to conservative "yellow-dog Democrat" vote there and elsewhere. Gephardt early on got the support of eight members of the Texas congressional delegation, his largest single base of House support, but has not yet built on that.

William Carrick, Gephardt's campaign manager, acknowledged feeling the pinch of Gore's southern strategy. "I will confess to having strained resources," he said. "We are engaged in a three-front war. It's hard to run in Iowa, New England and the South." But he said that Gore's assumption that he can be a viable candidate in the South on March 8 without a caucus victory in Iowa or primary victory in New Hampshire is flawed.

"I see him being 0 for 6 when he arrives on March 8," Carrick said. In addition to Iowa and New Hampshire, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming and Maine choose delegates to the 1988 Democratic National Convention before Super Tuesday.

Gore supporters counter that Iowa and New Hampshire are each likely to be won by candidates from neighboring states, Gephardt or Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) in the Iowa caucuses and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in the New Hampshire primary, which would diminish the media impact of both outcomes.

In addition, Gore's supporters said that his hard-line foreign policy rhetoric and his appeal to a southern grievance about having been left out of the process in the past can sustain his campaign through a lean February.

While Gore faces the burden of surviving middle to back-of-the-pack finishes in the early states, Gephardt has the opposite problem: high expectations in Iowa. "If Gephardt falls to third in Iowa, he's in trouble," said Texas party official Martin. "He's put so much time in that state, and the national media will write him off."

Gore, meantime, is playing down expectations by not investing heavily in Iowa. "It's smart politics," said former Democratic National Committee chairman Robert S. Strauss, "He's got nothing going in Iowa, so he goes there, attacks the process, and gives himself an excuse for not doing well."

At the moment, the Democratic candidate with the strongest southern voter base is neither Gore nor Gephardt. It is Jesse L. Jackson. He comes in first in virtually all polls of the region. Blacks are expected to constitute 20 to 30 percent of the Democratic electorate in the South, and Super Tuesday -- the creation of white southern conservative Democrats -- may produce a major win for a black liberal.

But white Democratic leaders are scrambling to prevent that, Aalabama's Baker said. He said that the threat of a Jackson victory is inducing them to coalesce behind Gore as the candidate who can rally broad southern support.

The real test of Gore's strategy will not occur until February and March when he tries to capture southern voters, as opposed to southern political leaders. Gore strategists hope that next year's critical mass of Super Tuesday events will enable them "to utilize the southern states to drive what happens in the early primaries, rather than the other way around," said Richard Lodge, Tennessee Democratic Party chairman.