Sen. Terry Sanford (D-N.C.), describing the Democratic presidential nominating process as "not rational," wants Democratic elected officials to have an earlier and more significant role in the process of selecting a presidential nominee.

Although Democrats designated elected and party officials as "Super Delegates" to their last two nominating conventions, Sanford said "our influence was nil because the nomination was a foregone conclusion" before the conventions.

Sanford recently circulated a letter to Democratic senators asking them to consider the idea of convening a conference early next year to which Democratic House members and governors would be invited to meet with presidential candidates.

Sanford suggested the event, which would be covered by the news media, include a statement by each candidate and then questions "at length" by the officials. A secret straw vote would be conducted, with the results made public. "It would give each candidate an early validation, making them more impervious to dismissal by the media," he wrote.

Sanford, who unsuccessfully ran for the presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976, is a longtime advocate of changing the process. "The main reason we've been the party out of power so long, is we haven't had a good nominating process," he said yesterday in an interview.

Sanford holds the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at least partly responsible for the party's failure to nominate a successful candidate.

"Needed reform of the nominating procedures has been thwarted by the individual vested interests of the DNC members in maintaining the maze of primaries and caucuses," he wrote his Democratic colleagues in the Senate.

Unless senators take the initiative, Sanford wrote, "Once again we can expect a convoluted and haphazard process that is neither deliberative or democratic, and once again we are likely to fail to occupy the White House."

Sanford, who is up for reelection in 1992, also worries that unless there is reform of the process, members of his Senate class "will likely be dragged down by the presidential race."

DNC press secretary Ginny Terzano called Sanford's proposal "a notion that reverts to a time and place where back-room deal-making was the means to selecting our nominee. The rules have changed."

Sanford said that his Democratic Senate colleagues expressed interest in his proposal during their annual retreat yesterday in Chantilly. "I don't intend to rewrite the rules," he said. "I just wanted to call it to their attention."