GOING down with Gov. Michael Dukakis (unless he pulls off an unforeseen, astonishing upset) is the concept that a Northern Democrat can make it to the presidency. It is called the Northern strategy. Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale offered convincing proof that this strategy didn't work. Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter showed that a Southern strategy with a Southern candidate would work.
So it is not too surprising that, already, the man who could well be the chief beneficiary of an almost inevitable turn of the Democratic Party southward in 1992 - Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee - is raring to go.
Senator Gore flew a ``red-eye'' from Los Angeles to meet with reporters over lunch the day after the last Bush-Dukakis debate. He donned a white hospital coat on which he wore this tag: ``Senator Albert Gore Jr.: Spin Doctor.'' The night before, he had been telling reporters that Governor Dukakis's performance was a good one. Now in Washington he was trying to apply the same spin to the debate. It was a valiant effort. But he was able to do much more for himself - and his future - than he was for the candidate he was defending.
Mr. Gore was all smiles and wit. At one point, in mock seriousness, he responded to reporters' unrelenting questioning about his plans for 1992 this way: ``Actually I'm here to announce, officially, that I'm running for president four years from now.'' Then he laughed.
But still, everyone knew that Gore was ready to go - should Dukakis not make it. Indeed, Gore finally came around to saying that ``next time,'' whenever that would be, ``I'll start my campaign early.'' Afterward, several reporters were saying, ``Well, we've already got a candidate.''
Dukakis's Northern strategy has faltered on many counts. Many blacks feel he has not fulfilled his convention commitment to the Rev. Jesse Jackson to make him a full partner in the campaign. Many in the Jewish community are concerned that Dukakis has become too close to Mr. Jackson - and that Jackson might influence a President Dukakis to become ``evenhanded'' in dealing with the Palestinians.
But beyond those problems with Northern voters, Dukakis has been unable to attract Southern and Southwestern voters. The Democrat must have Texas to win. John F. Kennedy won in Texas. Lyndon Johnson helped him there. But Kennedy, with a position on defense that appeared even stronger than Richard Nixon's, helped himself in that state. It was Kennedy who charged the Eisenhower administration with allowing a ``missile gap.''
There are a lot of elements that pertain more to Dukakis himself than to his party or any strategy in what now seems a losing effort. He can't seem to show much warmth, try as he may. Voters don't seem to feel he has presidential stature. He is certainly no Jack Kennedy.
So some Northern Democrats will doubtless argue, in the event of a Dukakis loss, that the result simply sprang from running the wrong candidate - and that the strategy was fine. They may well try Mario Cuomo or Bill Bradley next time around. Or even Ted Kennedy.
But the likelihood is that the light will break through in the thinking of Democratic leaders: They will conclude that their best chance is with an attractive candidate from the South.
Here's where young Gore (``I'm younger than Quayle,'' he pointed out) comes in. He's a particularly attractive candidate. He's a proven vote getter in several Southern presidential primaries. And - more than anything else - he's going to get in early next time and campaign in primaries all over the United States.
There's another obvious Southern Democratic possibility: Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. But Senator Nunn just hasn't shown much interest in running for president.
In his recent quest for the presidency, Gore was criticized, in some quarters, for apparently lacking a sense of humor and for taking himself too seriously. Well, the Al Gore that turned up at this luncheon was bantering and quipping from start to finish. He does have a lighter side.
Perhaps because he was so young, he had tried overly hard at a breakfast with reporters last winter to show that he was a man with mature judgment on everything. This time, he emerged as someone who is quick on his feet in jousting with the press and who has learned the value, at times, of making fun of himself.
So it was that even as somber Dukakis was fighting for his political life and steadfastly asserting that all was not lost, a lighthearted Gore was openly seeking to put that same optimistic spin to Dukakis's prospects.
But this ``spin doctor'' was really able to convince the reporters only of this: that, although the Dukakis campaign was in a bad way, the Southern strategy for electing a Democratic president was alive and well and young Gore was already stepping forward as its champion.