In choosing Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate for the Democratic presidential ticket, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis played it safe and Southern.

The selection of Bentsen from a relatively large field of diverse candidates highlighted Dukakis' reputation as a cautious politician while also lending credence to his image as an astute and pragmatic politician.Bentsen was a surprising choice but not a bold one. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson would have been bold, because he is black. Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. would have been bold, because he is young.

But in Bentsen, Dukakis gets three additions to the ticket he needs.

One is that Bentsen is a Southerner, although some in the Deep South might argue that point. Two, Bentsen provides Dukakis with immediate entry to inside Washington, a connection much maligned by politicians that nonetheless remains indispensible for a president. And third, Bentsen is a moderate Democrat and diminishes at least a little bit of Dukakis' sheen as a Northeastern liberal.

Certainly for Southern Democrats, the selection of Bentsen is a boon, giving them hope that perhaps Dukakis might give them a shot at Southern states that Republican Vice President George Bush considers his fortress.

Southerners might have preferred Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia or Gore, but the former declined to be considered and the latter was not asked.

Those who feel the 1988 race is a repeat of 1960, when another Bostonian took another Texan as his running mate, might be overdoing the comparison.

When Sen. John F. Kennedy, a charismatic Northern liberal, chose Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, he assured the Democrats of what then still was the Solid South.

Bentsen, not nearly as well-known as Johnson, at most gives Southerners a reason to vote for Dukakis. He assures them nothing. And besides the positives, Bentsen brings some negatives to the Dukakis campaign.

He is 67 years old, proved he was a weak campaigner in his 1976 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and is much more the patrician than a common man - immensely wealthy and very much a supporter of his state's economic interests, namely oil.

Yet in many ways, Bentsen may have been the best of what was left after Nunn and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and perhaps others ruled themselves out of contention. John Glenn of Ohio is of the same mold but not a Southerner; Bob Graham of Florida is too new and Gore probably is too young.

And nobody, almost certainly not even Jackson, really believed the civil rights leader would be picked.

So with Bentsen, Dukakis gets an able man, skilled and experienced, fully qualified to take over as president. And with Bentsen, there is no chance the nominee will be overshadowed by his running mate.