WASHINGTON. — Jugs of hard cider and split-rail fences have been symbols of presidential campaigns. But buffalo chips?
In 1980, at age 29, Dave McCurdy was campaigning for the Democratic congressional nomination in Oklahoma's Fourth District, 8,000 square miles of it.
It is larger than Massachusetts, and more sensible, politically. It runs from the outskirts of Oklahoma City to the border of Baja Oklahoma (as Oklahomans call Texas). Much cotton springs from it, much oil comes out of it and many buffalo roam on it, in a refuge where in 1980 McCurdy found himself with some political rivals in a buffalo chip throwing contest.
His rivals were older and less robust. Besides, only Mr. McCurdy had placed third in the state in high school discus throwing. He tossed the stuff about three times farther than his rivals did. That night, campaigning at a rodeo, he thrust some campaign literature at a cowboy who said he didn't need it: ''The way you throw (noun not suitable for family newspapers), you belong in Congress.''
Chip throwing should be second nature to a fifth-generation Oklahoman whose congressional office contains a picture of his great-great-grandfather and family. McCurdy says the picture can be dated in the 1890s because the two babies in the picture died then, less than a year apart.
Memories of frontier harshness have faded like a sun-bleached daguerreotype. But warm memories of working-class family life fuel Mr. McCurdy's politics as he travels on behalf of the Democratic Leadership Council. That is an organization of party moderates asking this question: How often must the party be bashed across the bridge of its nose with a crowbar before it gets the electorate's message?
Democrats should, he believes, begin by restoring their trustworthiness regarding national security.
Four months ago, he visited the Persian Gulf, using his standing as a member of the Armed Services Committee and an Air Force Reserve captain to be briefed on war plans. He returned to Washington convinced, and determined to convince other Democrats, that the war would go as well as in fact it did go.
Two months ago he became the youngest congressman ever to chair a permanent committee (Intelligence). It is possible, although not yet probable, that a few months from now he will become a presidential candidate.
One reason for his focus on foreign policy is a budget fact: Discretionary social spending is now less than 15 percent of the budget, which is devoured by defense, debt-service and entitlements.
But his attention is turning increasingly toward domestic policy, and particularly toward the nation's growing anxiety about competitiveness. He is particularly interested in the growing disparity between the educational system's product and the economy's needs.
Democrats have 16 months to decide whom to nominate, but sooner than that they should decide what they will be trying to do in 1992. They have two basic choices:
They can forfeit the election in a sterile manner, running some eminent elder -- say, Lloyd Bentsen -- who probably will not win and probably has no presidential hope beyond 1992.
Or they can run a rising star who probably will lose this time around the track but who can accomplish two things: He can give the party a fresh face while honing its message and his rhetorical and organizational skills for the next time.
There is nothing wrong with anticipating the next time. Richard Nixon and George Bush won on their second tries, Ronald Reagan on his third (counting, as one should, his 1968 effort).
Dick Gephardt and Al Gore are hesitant for a good reason: Each has already lost once. Chuck Robb is terminally cautious. Sam Nunn and Bill Bradley say they will not go this time.
But someone must run and Dave McCurdy's record bears comparison with the records of those more frequently mentioned as candidates.
Furthermore, he comes from among the kind of people Democrats must attract but have recently been driving away in droves. He remembers that "the alarm clock went off every morning." His mother worked in the factory where his father was an electrician. They drove to and from work together and ate lunch together.
Today his wife Pam is a child psychiatrist with a practice in suburban Virginia. They were married 20 years ago, just as he headed for law school and she for medical school.
After a year studying international economics in Edinburgh, he briefly practiced law, pronounced himself ''bored stiff,'' then headed for Congress, via buffalo country and the ''Safeway strategy'' (campaigning in front of Safeways from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.).
He was 10 when a politician a presidential candidate first caught his imagination. On Election Day, 1992, he will be just 10 months younger than John Kennedy was on Election Day, 1960.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.