SAN FRANCISCO, OCT. 1 -- Do you have to be likable to get elected president?

And if so, can an intensely self-assured, disciplined and methodical person such as Michael S. Dukakis meet that test?

These questions have nothing to do with such weighty matters as the defense budget and the federal deficit, but they have hung over the Democratic nominee's campaign staff like dark clouds in the week since Dukakis and Republican George Bush met in their first debate.

In some respects, that session did a lot of good for Dukakis. The polls and pundits may never agree about who "won" the debate. But Dukakis, at least, is convinced that he did. Consequently, he was a buoyant, confident campaigner all week as he addressed big, spirited crowds around the country on domestic issues such as taxes, Social Security, ethics in government, rural development and environmental protection.

But there is also evidence that Dukakis won more respect than affection in the debate. His media advisers had repeatedly told him during his debate preparation that he had to try to be warm and friendly, even while dumping on the vice president.

Dukakis may not have tried hard enough. Some polling data and voter interviews suggest that a lot of people came away with the feeling that Bush is the more likable of the two major-party presidential candidates. And that may undermine whatever gains Dukakis made on substantive grounds.

This leaves the Democrats a strategic choice. Should they try to argue that "likable" doesn't really matter when people are choosing the leader of the free world, or should they seek to portray Dukakis as a more likable person?

So far, they seem to be pursuing the latter. "When he talks about people, like the kid who can't play sports because his dad doesn't have {health} insurance, then he comes across as a caring person," said senior campaign adviser Kirk O'Donnell. And sure enough, Dukakis has been injecting more stories about ordinary people he has met this year into his stump speeches.

But in character and demeanor, Dukakis is not a person who creates warm, friendly feelings among those seeing him for the first time. The Democratic nominee is a serious, dogged worker who maintains high standards of personal discipline for himself.

According to his wife, Kitty, Dukakis can open a can of peanuts, eat one, and put the top back on. On his first trip to Las Vegas 28 years ago, he played a single coin in a slot machine, then walked away -- a winner, by the way -- never to play again. He declares with obvious pride that he has held his weight for the past 33 years within one pound of his goal -- 155 pounds.

Some people who have known or worked with Dukakis complain that he expects everyone else to live up to the same kind of stern regimen he follows. That attitude creates a kind of puritan smugness and an aura of superiority that comes through now in his television and campaign appearances.

There are times on the stump when Dukakis looks and acts like a regular -- indeed, "likable" -- guy.

Today, for example, he came to a cold, foggy beach here just below the Golden Gate Bridge to address a happy crowd at an environmental rally. A driving rock band called Big Bang Beat got the audience in a funky mood by singing "You know, you make me want to vote" to the tune of the Isley Brothers' classic, "Shout."

Dukakis was prepared to make an announcement important to California environmentalists: He would declare most of the state's coastline, from Big Sur to the Oregon border, a "marine sanctuary" off-limits to dumping, oil drilling and the like. But when the big moment came, Dukakis flubbed it by saying he would create a sanctuary from "Big Soar to the Oregon border."

Though he had blown the central television sound bite of his campaign day, Dukakis was able to appreciate the humor of it. He stood there for a while just laughing at himself, and then said the "Big Sur" line a second time, correctly.

He reacted similarly in Pennsylvania last week when a woman fainted in the warm sun just as he was reaching the finish of his speech. The candidate instantly interrupted his talk, asked quietly for a doctor to come forward, then calmly hushed the crowd while the woman was being revived.

Three days later, though, it was a different Dukakis who took questions at a town meeting in a high school gym in Riverside, Calif. A boy about 10 years old stood to ask a question, but was too nervous before all the television lights to get it out clearly.

"Talk a little slower," Dukakis snapped at the boy. "You're talking as fast as I used to before I was instructed to change it."

The youngster stood there looking at Dukakis as if he did not find the candidate likable at all.