Five years after it was founded as a Washington "safe house" for moderate and conservative Democrats, the Democratic Leadership Conference is making its first serious effort to convert itself into a grass-roots organization.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D), the new DLC chairman, has spent the last five days with DLC president Al From launching new chapters of the organization in Kentucky, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. The goal, From said, is to have chapters in at least 20 states when the organization holds its convention in Cleveland in May and to reach another 20 by the end of the year.

Clinton and From said the DLC would retain its focus on issues, rather than become a vehicle for anyone's campaign. But From added, "We hope to build a network of people who might not have been involved in Democratic {presidential} primaries, an alternative infrastructure for the candidate or candidates delivering the message we hope the Democrats will emphasize in 1992."

More bluntly, a major DLC supporter said, "The idea is to create the potential of a national organization that might offset the advantage in money and publicity a Mario Cuomo would have the day he announced his candidacy." The New York governor has never identified himself with the DLC or its goals.

The DLC, which styles itself a "mainstream" Democratic organization, was founded in the wake of the 1984 presidential election by a group of elected officials, mainly from the border states and the South, who were concerned that the election of Paul G. Kirk Jr. as chairman of the Democratic National Committee signaled that the party structure would remain in the hands of liberals.

DLC leaders included Sens. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

The original "feud" with Kirk was quickly forgotten as the organization developed a broader policy focus, eventually spinning off a think tank of its own, the Progressive Policy Institute, which has produced eight reports on domestic and international issues.

The leadership of the group, which now includes 383 elected officials, still has a southern flavor, with Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) serving as Clinton's vice chairmen, but the hierarchy also includes Reps. William H. Gray III (D) of Philadelphia and Barbara B. Kennelly (D) of Hartford.

Clinton, who nominated Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) at the Atlanta convention and whose friendships span the party spectrum, said the organization has a "reform" agenda, aimed at "restructuring government rather than expanding it."

Some of its rhetoric and programs -- "empowering" people and providing a choice of public schools for parents, for example -- overlap those of activist conservatives in the Republican Party. But Clinton argued that "only the Democrats have the credibility with government workers and program recipients to launch a major restructuring program."

While Gephardt and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), another DLC member, sought the presidential nomination in 1988, the organization provided little support for their campaigns, largely because its membership and activities were centered in the capital.

That will have changed by 1992, if the efforts now underway succeed.

Chapters have been formed in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Southern California, headed by local elected officials in the first two instances and, in California, by John Emerson, onetime leader of former senator Gary Hart's presidential campaign.

The new chapters boast leaders who are among the best-known Democrats in their states, including former South Carolina governor Richard Riley, Sen. Wendell H. Ford (Ky.) and Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson.

Several members of the congressional delegations head the Alabama and North Carolina chapters. The Mississippi list includes Gov. Ray Mabus, former governor William Winter and Rep. Mike Espy. The Texas chapter includes virtually the entire Democratic hierarchy of the state, starting with Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen and Gov.-elect Ann Richards.

From said another goal of the grass-roots drive is to shift DLC financing, which has been criticized as being overly dependent on Washington lobbyists, to a mass membership base.

"I can't stand to raise money in this town anymore," From remarked. The budget for next year is $2.5 million.

A group with that kind of local political and financial base in most or all major states obviously would be well-positioned to play presidential politics, and Clinton said he is hopeful that "one or more people" will espouse DLC's approach in the 1992 primaries.

The possibilities include Bentsen, Gore and Gephardt. Clinton often is mentioned as a potential presidential candidate but promised Arkansas voters in his reelection campaign this year that he would serve a full four-year term.

"I am far more interested in building a movement than helping myself," he said.