LOS ANGELES -- Democratic governors once boasted of building new houses and expanding the welfare state. Now they boast of building new prisons and pushing welfare recipients off the rolls and into the work force.

Democratic candidates from California to Massachusetts and from Illinois to Alabama are thumbing their noses at liberal orthodoxy, challenging their party's left on a range of highly controversial social and spending issues. The success or failure of their tactics is likely to significantly influence Democratic presidential strategies in 1992.

Here in the critically important battle for governor of California, former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat, is using liberal Democratic criticism of her support of the death penalty during the primary campaign to appeal to the more conservative general election constituency. Feinstein's campaign is running a commercial showing her being booed at the state Democratic Party convention as she declares: "Yes, I support the death penalty. The people of this state want to be protected, and I aim to protect them."

About 2,000 miles away in Alabama, Democrat Paul Hubbert has broken with traditional liberal support for prisoners' rights. In one ad, he stands in front of a jail and declares: "We're spending $173 million a year to keep prisoners in comfort. . . . The working people of Alabama have to get up and go to work every day; it's time the prisoners did too."

Hubbert and Feinstein are both part of a fledgling movement among Democratic candidates to break with policies and programs that have plagued Democrats in the past -- especially Democratic presidential candidates.

From the GOP attack on George McGovern's platform 18 years ago as an endorsement of "amnesty, acid and abortion" to the devastating use of convicted murderer-rapist Willie Horton in George Bush's 1988 campaign, Republican candidates have portrayed Democrats as permissive, soft on crime and prepared to spend tax dollars collected from the middle class on the non-working poor.

A number of Democratic tacticians believe the collapse of the 1988 presidential campaign of Democrat Michael S. Dukakis -- from a 17-point lead in August to defeat in November -- is having a major influence on Democratic strategic thinking in 1990.

"Willie Horton did it to them," said Mike McKeon, an Illinois Democratic pollster who has argued that crime and taxes are key issues that Democrats cannot afford to dodge.

McKeon contended that the independently produced Horton commercials that were used to support the Bush campaign "were bad, they were racial, but the chords they struck were a clear message. . . . All these social programs are wonderful, but for a 54-year-old lady who has to get up at 5:30 in the morning to do her shopping because she's scared of the crime {in the evening}, everything else falls by the wayside."

McKeon is polling for the Illinois gubernatorial campaign of Neil Hartigan, the Democratic state attorney general who has turned the traditional Democratic tax-and-spend position on its head:

A Hartigan commercial declares: "When given a choice, {GOP gubernatorial nominee} Jim Edgar's first response has always been higher taxes." It is an attack against his Republican opponent that could have been lifted almost verbatim from Ronald Reagan's assaults on Walter F. Mondale in 1984 or Bush's anti-Dukakis rhetoric in 1988. "Jim Edgar's first response? Raise taxes. Neil Hartigan's? Make government do more with the money it already has."

Along similar lines, former senator Lawton Chiles (D) is now running for governor of Florida as an adversary of the "tax and spend" policies that on the national level have been tied to the Democratic Party. "We're going to get rid of nonessential high-level bureaucrats -- make government smaller and smarter," Chiles tells voters in one of his most recent commercials.

And in Michigan, there has been a partial partisan role reversal in the contest between incumbent Democratic Governor James J. Blanchard and GOP challenger John Engler, the state Senate majority leader.

Engler, sounding almost like a Democrat, has argued that politicians should recognize not only "the need to lock up our most violent and dangerous criminals, but also {to} understand that the long-term solution to our crime problems isn't in more jail cells, it's in better classrooms." At the same time, Blanchard got headlines for proposals to cut the state welfare budget by $46 million in late 1989 and by $115 million last month.

But when it comes to challenging Democratic orthodoxy, no one holds a candle to Boston University President John Silber, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Massachusetts. During his primary campaign, Silber repeatedly provoked Democratic critics with comments suggesting that Massachusetts's liberal social policies have turned the state into a "welfare magnet" for "people who are accustomed to living in the tropical climate," and questioning the use of costly measures to prolong the life of the very old who are on the verge of death. "When you've had a long life and you're ripe, then it's time to go," he said.

Completing the reversal of partisan roles, William Weld, Silber's Republican opponent, has collected endorsements from such normally Democratic groups as the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus and Local 26 of the Hotel Employees Union. And it is Weld who has been forced into the position of defensively declaring: "The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights is not a special interest group" after he received the organization's backing.

In a number of states, the Republican candidates are pulling out the stops to undermine this Democratic strategy. In these states, the campaigns have become contests between Democrats seeking to break with liberal orthodoxy and Repubicans struggling to paint their adversaries into a familiar corner.

In California, for example, GOP nominee Sen. Pete Wilson first attacked Feinstein as a proponent of hiring by racial and gender quotes -- "not qualifications, not ability, but quotas" -- and more recently has shifted to a portrayal of his Democratic opponent as a tax-raising liberal mayor: "Pete Wilson {as mayor of San Diego} cut property tax rates by 25 percent and balanced 11 budgets. Feinstein raised taxes 34 percent but left a $172 million deficit."

Republican Gov. Guy Hunt of Alabama is seeking to break the Hubbert challenge by characterizing his Democratic opponent, who is head of the Alabama Education Association, as a liberal national Democrat:

As the camera focuses on a still photo of Mondale sitting in a car with Hubbert, the voice in a Hunt commercial declares: "Paul Hubbert and his union supported the presidential campaign of Walter Mondale. Mr. Hubbert has been a longtime supporter of Jesse Jackson {as an old newpaper picture of Jackson appears on the screen} and Mr. Hubbert's union even co-endorsed Jackson for president."

In what may prove to be a key test of the viability of Democratic efforts to move away from identification with liberal orthodoxy on social issues, Hubbert has countered the Hunt assault -- designed to cut into Hubbert's support among white voters -- with a tough welfare commercial.

"It's time to get people off the welfare rolls and onto the work rolls, Hubbert declares in the commercial. "They are going to get job training and they are going to go to work."