IF the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster to become surgeon general goes forward, Americans may be subjected to a test of political wills in coming months in which everyone involved emerges as a loser.
President Clinton must shoulder the blame for the White House ineptitude. He and his staff apparently failed to realize how relevant Dr. Foster's record on abortion would be. They failed to protect their nominee by not getting straight at the start how many abortions Foster had performed.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich needed no hyperbole to recite the painful facts. ''The most disturbing thing is the quality of the staff work,'' Mr. Gingrich said last week. ''After two years [in office], how could they be this grotesquely wrong and stumble into this kind of fight?''
Now Mr. Clinton is faced with unattractive choices. If he presses on, he risks losing the confirmation battle in the Senate and looking more helpless than ever. If he withdraws Foster's name, he will been seen as waffling and unwilling to take a tough political stand. He will also undermine his credibility with the Democrats on record in defense of Foster.
Republicans have something to lose, too. They have a legislative agenda, and the clock is ticking. Instead of voting on balanced budgets, crime bills, and term limits, the Senate could be tied up debating abortion rights, America's most contentious social issue, on which the Republicans don't agree among themselves. It's a split that the party would like to keep buried.
Foster himself is the other potential victim. From what is known now, he is a highly qualified candidate with a fine record. His ''I Have a Future'' program in Nashville, Tenn., has reduced teen pregnancies by encouraging young women to develop long-term goals.
Whether Foster's early answers to questions on the number of abortions he has performed were merely slips born of political innocence or calculated evasions is a legitimate topic for hearings. Credibility counts. With his now in question, Dr. Foster has a right to defend himself in hearings.
A final thought: If Clinton does withdraw Foster and nominates another doctor who has performed abortions, the people will see whether the issue is ''credibility'' in this narrow sense, or really was abortion all along.