LITTLE ROCK, ARK. -- Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D) is a peacemaker by personality, but he is bracing for an argument.

Clinton has spent months crafting what he believes can be a winning message for his hard-pressed party. Now, after enthusiastic reviews before disparate groups of Democrats, he is in the throes of deciding whether to also become the messenger by entering the 1992 presidential race.

Like many Democrats, Clinton tells audiences what the country doesn't need is two Republican parties.

So what's the argument? Simple. Clinton chairs the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization of moderate Democrats trying to redefine the party's image. In doing so, the DLC has drawn fire from elements of the party for distorting Democratic positions on race and social policy and adopting Republican rhetoric on defense and foreign policy issues. When other Democrats say the country does not need two GOPs, they're talking specifically about the DLC.

Clinton says it's a bum rap and is ready, even eager, for a debate, which he knows will come if he runs for the Democratic nomination.

"I would welcome it," he said with a tone of exasperation in his voice. "But they're going to have a hard time -- the party people who have attacked me or the DLC for being just like Republicans. My argument to them is, okay, you take out your civil rights record and I'll take out mine. You take out what you've done for poor people -- what you've tried to do -- and I'll take out mine. You take out what you've tried to do for education and I'll take out mine. What's your health care policy, and here's mine."

Unlike critics of the DLC, Clinton believes there is a way to put a new face on the party without alienating its traditional constituencies.

"What you have to do is lift the battle to a different plane," he said. He believes Democrats must convince blacks and whites alike that the enemy is not one another but what he calls a decade of Republicanism that has left the country less competitive, American children behind educationally and middle-class families worried about the costs of health care, college educations and other pressing needs.

"The only shot the Democrats have {to defeat President Bush}," he said, "and very frankly the only one they ought to have, is to come up with an approach that is consistent with the traditional values of this party {and} that unifies people across lines of income and race and that is genuinely helpful to people in solving the problems . . . of this country."

Clinton is sensitive to criticism of the DLC's recent convention in Cleveland, which featured a debate over racial quotas that some Democrats said played into the hands of Republican strategists, as well as language in DLC resolutions that was criticized for misstating Democratic policy.

The DLC's most prominent black member, House Majority Whip William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), was so upset that he sent Clinton an angry letter saying the convention demonstrated "a pattern of management disastrous for those who want to lead our party, not to mention the country."

"We can't use nebulous distinctions between 'old' and 'new' politics to exclude the most loyal and distinguished members of our party," Gray wrote. "We can't create a mainstream Democratic agenda by adopting rhetoric indistinguishable from platform language at Republican conventions."

"There were some rough edges on the whole thing," Clinton conceded, "and it made Bill Gray uncomfortable, and some of the points he made were entirely legitimate. But if you look at the kinds of things that were said there and the kinds of things we tried to advocate, it was a real good effort."

Clinton supporters say it is ironic the DLC under Clinton has become such a symbol of division among Democrats; they see him as one of the few people considering a run for president equipped to bridge those differences.

They say he is a people-oriented southerner who works -- critics say too hard -- to woo back those he has offended. But more important, they say, the core of his message is designed to build bridges between loyal black voters and alienated whites who once called themselves Democrats.

"Clinton is not at all uncomfortable with race issues," said Betsey Wright, his longtime chief of staff and now chair of the Arkansas Democratic Party. "There's no awkwardness, no clumsiness. It's a very deep-rooted commitment to equality."

Clinton argues that Republicans have become masters of a "divide-and-conquer" strategy, in part because working-class whites and minority voters share common economic insecurities brought about by the failure of the nation's economy to grow as rapidly as it did a generation ago. "We haven't been the dividers," he said. "But we have let the divisions continue."

But Clinton does not shrink from the challenges to Democratic orthodoxy promoted by the DLC; he wholeheartedly endorses them. For example, he does not oppose a capital gains tax cut in principle (just Bush's version), thinks the military cannot be shrunk more than the 25 percent already envisioned, eschews protectionism (he supported fast-track negotiations on free trade with Mexico); and advocates social policy that puts as much emphasis on personal responsibility as on government handouts.

"If we are going to be the party of government . . . ," he said, "we can't have people think we are captives of our own bureaucracy and that we don't recognize any responsibility on the part of the people who benefit from government programs to give something back in terms of responsible behavior."

But he said his commitment to civil rights and his support for such policies as the family leave legislation vetoed last year by President Bush and the Brady handgun bill make him something far different than a Republican clone. "I think there are dramatic differences between where I am and where the Republicans are, but they are differences that tend to unite the American people, not divide them by race or income," he said.

Clinton, a former Rhodes scholar, was first elected governor in 1978, lost a reelection bid in 1980, won the post back in 1982 and has been there since. At 44, he is now the nation's senior governor in terms of service. His friend Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) has joked that Clinton has been a rising star in three different decades.

Clinton is recognized as a leader among the nation's governors on education issues, but is perhaps best known nationally for the long-winded bomb of a speech he made nominating Michael S. Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic convention.

At recent Democratic Party events, however, his southern-fried oratory, while not quite as hot nor as traditionally liberal as that of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has sparked interest among audiences otherwise skeptical of the DLC.

With Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) still on the fence, at most, about running in 1992, Clinton is under what one friend called "incessant" pressure to become a candidate.

To do so he will have to renege on a pledge to Arkansas voters, made during last year's reelection campaign, that he would serve out the four-year term as governor. That is seen as a problem here at home, but something that can be finessed, especially if other Arkansas Democratic officials publicly urge him to run. That already has begun.

He also worries about whether the governor of a small, poor, southern state can raise the money necessary to compete against someone like Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.).

Four years ago, Clinton got to the brink of announcing his candidacy for presidency, then abruptly changed his mind, citing family reasons. Wright, surveying the hurdles he faces, said she still bets he will wait until 1996. But others say he is looking at 1992 more intensely than ever, and he has told friends that his wife, Hillary, favors a race next year.

Clinton said the Persian Gulf War has, for now, put a "no vacancy" sign on the White House, but Democrats need to be working to position themselves for next year. "I just decided the Democrats needed to be very, very aggressive in making clear what we thought the problems were and what we thought ought to be done about them and quit worrying about the president's electability," he said.

But he has a warning for Democrats who he fears may be more interested in rerunning old battles than in looking to the future. "I think the American people are going to be real impatient with name-callers and labelers," he said. "That's more of the same. Their eyes will glaze over, and they'll say, 'The heck with all of them, you know. Leave Bush in.' "