AS the Democrats begin assembling for their convention in Atlanta, they have reason to view their presidential prospects with a mixture of hope and uncertainty. Their campaign thus far has fulfilled its objectives. And, happy that they no longer have Ronald Reagan to kick them around anymore, they view George Bush as an eminently beatable Republican. Still, they must grapple with the central problem that has bedeviled them since their last unambiguous presidential victory, in 1964: the lack of public acceptance of their core prescriptions for governing.
The Democrats are the liberal party, as they were during the New Deal. But liberalism has undergone a substantial transformation that has left it weakened.
The old liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt's and Harry Truman's time hardly had to fight the charge that it wasn't strong enough on national defense or was too reluctant to assert American interests abroad. In fact, it pioneered a new, expanded United States role internationally. Post-Vietnam liberalism, though, has been vulnerable on these points.
The old liberalism urged ``more government'' when government was still quite small and its expansion widely supported. The new continues to favor a growth of the state when it has become very large, and ``more government'' has ceased to be a popular slogan.
For all the multiplicity of candidates with which they began the 1988 campaign and the potential divisiveness of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's candidacy, the Democrats are in fact remarkably united. The unity comes from a desperate desire to win. It also reflects a near-consensus among the party's national leadership that they will lose the election if it becomes a contest where they are seen clearly as the liberal party.
In the New Deal era things were quite reversed: The Republicans believed they would lose if viewed clearly as the conservative party.
This shift took many Democrats a while to recognize. George McGovern's ill-fated 1972 run reflected that initial confusion. By now, though, a second generation of new liberal candidates - exemplified by Michael Dukakis - have adapted to it. The platform that Mr. Dukakis and his backers have put together illustrates this adjustment, notably in what it doesn't say.
Platform drafter Theodore C. Sorensen delivered a first draft of just 3,000 words; the version adopted by the platform committee June 25 ran only a bit more than 4,000. The brevity was in part a reaction to the 1984 platform, whose 45,000 words were criticized as replete with special-interest planks. But the idea that the least said the better was also an admission that an airing of core party principles is likely to lose votes.
Dukakis himself at every juncture has sought to blur the lines of policy cleavage - by offering such ringing campaign promises as ``good jobs at good wages,'' reveling in a reputation for bland competence, and striving to make the election revolve around Republican personalities rather than Republican policies. His choice as running mate of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a conservative Texan who also radiates bland competence, is yet another instance of the deemphasis of party philosophy.
With less than four months remaining in the long 1988 campaign, Dukakis's strategy for overcoming the Democrats' persistent problem in modern presidential electioneering is having some success. One measure of this success does seem a bit perverse - that after 15 months of all-out campaigning he has managed a situation where just 28 percent of the electorate perceive him to be a liberal, according to the New York Times/CBS News survey of July 5-8.
In addition to the liberalism issue, the Democrats must face another ``problem'': the unexpected robustness of the US economy. Last fall, prospects for the expansion to continue through the homestretch of Campaign '88 seemed dim. Now reports indicate that the economy, in the 67th month of an upswing, is growing even more rapidly.
Every presidential campaign has a moment of real mystery when, the two conventions having concluded their work, voters for the first time contemplate an electoral choice no longer hypothetical and abstract but actually upon them.
The underlying structure of this election favors the Republicans, even more clearly now that economic robustness is almost certain for the rest of 1988. But thus far Dukakis, holding to the strategy with which he began his campaign in the spring of 1987, has managed to beat the odds. The composite of polling data shows him slightly ahead going into the stretch run.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.