IN months to come, President Clinton will be glad he had a relaxing summer vacation. With the passage of Labor Day it's time for the exhausting race to the 1996 elections to begin - and, frankly, right now things don't look too good for the White House incumbent. Here's the message Mr. Clinton will likely get in his first late-summer strategy meeting: It's true that you do well in head-to-head polls against GOP front-runner Sen. Bob Dole. You're probably a better campaigner than all the likely Republican nominees. The bad news lies in electoral college math. Most of the South will go GOP in '96, no matter what happens between now and then. Important states in the Rocky Mountain West that voted for you in 1992 also appear problematic. ''In many ways, President Clinton is in the same position that President Bush was in during the 1992 cycle,'' writes political analyst Charles Cook in a recent national report. ''Like Bush, Clinton must win just about every state that isn't hopelessly lost in order to win an electoral college majority.'' To win the White House in 1992 Bill Clinton triumphed in a total of 32 states. Of those, at least seven appear unlikely to vote Democratic again, claims Mr. Cook. They are, in geographical order, Georgia and Louisiana in the deep South; Kentucky and Tennessee in the middle Southern border states; Nevada and Montana in the mountain West; and New Hampshire in the Northeast. Theoretically, Clinton could lose these seven and still be reelected, barely, by holding on to the other states he won last time around. The problem is that some of those may be shaky, too. Ohio is ''just about gone'' for the Democrats, according to Cook. Michigan is in ''real jeopardy''; Pennsylvania and Illinois are ''in play.'' Not all political bean-counters judge the electoral picture quite this dark for Dems. For one thing, Tennessee is Vice President Al Gore's home state, and may go for the incumbents in the end. Big Midwestern states such as Michigan and Ohio are traditional battlegrounds where campaigning skill really counts. They swing back and forth leading up to an election, and in the end often reflect what overall national opinion polls say. Still, ''the electoral college map is unquestionably more difficult for Clinton in '96 than '92,'' says Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University political scientist and author of a newly published book on the 1996 elections. That both reduces Clinton's margin for error and presents Democrats with a strategic political problem, says Mr. Wayne. Presidential reelection planners may well be asking themselves this crucial question: Where should we concentrate our money? Should Democrats throw some resources into such likely GOP states as Texas or Florida, to divert the eventual Republican nominee and force him to spend his own time and money there? Or should they throw everything into the Midwest battleground? Wayne says a Clinton victory is ''tough, but conceivable.'' But he adds that the electoral math shows why the candidacy of California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), slow-moving as it is at the moment, is such a threat to Clinton. ''It's hard to see how Clinton could win the electoral college at all without California.'' Of course, the campaign race is just beginning. Electoral college predictions at this point are not exactly precise science. ''It's like talking about who is going to win the Super Bowl, even though we've barely started the season yet,'' says Claiborne Darden Jr., a Georgia pollster. Electoral matchups can't be adequately handicapped until both nominees are known, says Mr. Darden. And he's convinced that Dole is far from a sure thing. ''Gary Hart led the polls for a year and a half, and look what happened to him,'' he says. Meanwhile, against this electoral background, Senator Dole himself has kicked off his fall campaign effort with an apparent bid to shore up his credentials with the Christian right, reports Monitor correspondent Ann Scott Tyson in Chicago. Speaking on Sept. 4 to the American Legion Convention in Indianapolis, Dole made a strong call for instilling patriotism and traditional values in America's youth. Among other things, he stressed that every child in the country should learn to speak fluent English in recognition of its role as America's official language. ''We must stop the practice of multilingual education as a means of instilling ethnic pride,'' Dole said. ''With all the divisive forces tearing at our country, we need the glue of language to help hold us together.'' The Republican presidential contender also urged schools to teach Western civilization. He decried new national history standards for ''sanitizing and glorifying other cultures'' while denigrating America by suggesting that students concentrate on ''some of our worst moments'' such as the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and 1950s McCarthyism. In Chicago on Tuesday, Dole broadly outlined his economic priorities but offered few concrete details in a speech to the Chicago Economic Club. As president, he vowed, he would lower taxes, introduce a flat-tax system, and streamline the IRS so that ''Americans could file their tax return on a post card.'' Moreover, he called for a constitutional amendment requiring a three-fifths majority vote for Congress to raise income tax rates.