IF President George Bush's passion for working the phones to build a consensus among world leaders has made this a skill required of a president, the desperate Democrats may have a real contender in Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. His idea of relaxing after dinner is four to five hours on the telephone talking to political contacts around the country. Like Bush, Clinton can point to times when he's used the phone to construct a consensus.One example is the way he pulled top Democrats together behind a plan to extract concessions from Bush rather than confront him at the 1989 education summit. Bush summoned the 50 governors to the summit in Charlottesville, Va., but left Congress out, setting up Clinton for a lead role as chairman of the Democratic Governor's Conference that year. Clinton already had a reputation of being an "education governor." "When we started, the White House wanted to come in and talk about reforming grades 1 to 12, the congressional leadership wanted to talk about new federal programs, and I and some others wanted to set performance standards," Clinton says. So he went to work on the phone, sounding out fellow Democratic governors. Some wanted to "just tell Bush to send money." Others suggested the Democrats act like "junkyard dogs" at the summit. "I knew there was no way to get a common statement for more federal spending, " he said afterward. "It was better to get performance standards first and then go after money to carry them out." After hours on the phone and in face-to-face meetings, Clinton convinced the party's congressional leadership to back off its plan to call for more federal dollars for education and let him negotiate a bipartisan agreement. The party leaders agreed and settled for restating their commitment to a broad set of goals. Clinton was doing more at Charlottesville than helping frame future education policy. He was signaling his fellow Democrats they have a young and energetic figure in their midst who understands domestic politics and knows that it isn't necessary to hang a price tag on every problem or pander to entrenched interests to find a salable, practical solution. It could turn out to be the ideal profile for party power brokers who shudder at the thought of having to challenge Bush on his foreign policy triumphs b ut are convinced he's vulnerable on the domestic front. One sign of Clinton's favorable impression on top party circles is the decision of Robert Farmer, the Boston businessman who was Michael Dukakis's senior fundraiser, to sign on in the same role for Clinton. It was Dukakis's early money that enabled him to finance a wide-ranging campaign in the South on Super Tuesday and emerge that day as the front-runner. During the '80s, Clinton was one of the genre of governors of both parties who took up where the Reagan administration left off in promoting a wide range of reforms in education, welfare, and a cleanup of the environment. Clinton's priority was education. Over the loud protests of the Arkansas education establishment, Clinton pushed teacher testing and the right of parents to choose which school to send their kids to. He won both battles. Though he thought it imprudent to get into a fight with the White House over federal funding, Clinton will fight to raise taxes if he's convinced it's the thing to do. Earlier this year, he pushed a targeted $300 million tax increase through the Arkansas legislature - fuel taxes for rural roads and more corporate income taxes for new regional technical colleges. Until his strong win last fall, Clinton, governor for 11 of the last 13 years, had difficulty getting money out of his legislature and some crit ics claim he'd had little impact on Arkansas. Clinton's independent streak has not damaged his political base in the black community, his state's liberal network, or among moderate voters. These days, Clinton is often described in the press as a "moderate," perhaps because he chairs the Democratic Leadership Council, the pro-growth wing of the national party. But it's more accurate to think of Clinton as a liberal with a different approach to solving problems. "He's a liberal," says Jerry Russell, a political consultant from Little Rock and an unreconstructed conservative Democrat. "Clinton and his ilk think government is the solution to our problems." Clinton looks at government in much the same way Gary Hart did in the '80s when he rallied the lion's share of Clinton's generation of anti-war leaders behind his candidacy for president. Hart refused to court the party's "special interest" groups and told voters he'd look for solutions that work rather than seek the advice of the special interest groups. It enabled Hart to build up a strong following among swing voters. Like Hart, Clinton faces a spat of "rumors" about extramarital activities. He didn't help himself when he said presidential candidates shouldn't necessarily have to answer reportershave you ever" questions. By saying that, he laid down a challenge to a press corps always on the lookout for an expose. But conversations with several newsmen and Clinton aides in Arkansas uncovered a consensus that, even though there's a lot of gossip about Clinton's nocturnal habits, no specifics are cited. "It's just the r umor mill that kicks in for any good-looking, rising politician. There's been no public disclosure," says Ernie Dumas, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Gazette. His evaluation is backed up by others. Despite Clinton's miserable showing as the party's keynoter in Atlanta - Clinton read the speech, which is not his style, at the insistence of Dukakis aides - he is a top stump speaker who can move a crowd and is a strong personal campaigner. At 45, he has nothing to lose by running in 1992 - with Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia, Al Gore Jr. of Tennessee, and Lloyd Bentsen of Texas having either bowed out of the race or expressed reluctance to get in. The field is clear for Clinton to emerge as his region's favorite son and, at the least, set himself up for 1996. Clinton has yet to prove himself Bush's equal on the telephone with leaders of foreign nations. So has the rest of the Democratic field. Barring a gaffe of monumental proportions, Bush's role in world politics makes him a prohibitive favorite for reelection. Still, he deserves a stiff challenge. Clinton would like to be the young, handsome, and articulate alternative who catches fire and gives him that challenge in 1992.