For the first time in a long time, Senate Democrats have a No. 2 guy who doesn't seem to want a better job.

Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky, at 66, is the Senate's new assistant majority leader, replacing the ailing Alan Cranston, D-Calif.Cranston, who stepped out of Ford's way because of poor health, at one time viewed himself as presidential timber. So did his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd. And so, too, his predecessor, Edward M. Kennedy, who may still.

Ford, however, has signaled no such aspirations. The third new No. 2 leader in the Capitol in less than two years - the other two are in the House - he's by far the most deferential.

"The majority leader will be the spokesman for the Senate Democratic Party," he said, referring to Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, nine years Ford's junior, who may have presidential ambitions of his own one day.

A master of the inside game of the Senate, Ford coveted the ultimate insider's position which he now holds and plans to keep it inside. His hope, and that of the colleagues who elected him, is that the Senate will look a little better from the outside.

It took more than two years for Ford to win the post. He started late in 1988, trying to unseat Cranston in that year's inside-the-Capitol party elections on a campaign theme of trying to make the Senate work better.

Ford was soundly beaten by Cranston, who had held the post since 1977. But Ford never stopped running, and Cranston's stock went down in the wake of his ties to Charles Keating, former head of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan.

Few doubt that Ford would have won last week's vote, even if Cranston had not dropped out of the race less than a week earlier. Ford managed to scare off a potential challenge by Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., and win the race uncontested.

Ask Ford what he wants to do as whip, and he says he wants to do all he can to make Mitchell's job a little easier. That's the politically correct answer to give, and Ford makes it believable.

Ford, a former governor of Kentucky, was first elected to the Senate in 1974. A lot of former governors find the Senate frustrating, the slow pace maddening, the inefficiencies compared to the executive branch ridiculous.

But Wendell Ford found a home.

Over the years, he has been most vigorous in defending his home state interests, including the tobacco, liquor and coal industries.

He also is known for his hospitality when colleagues make an annual pilgrimage to the Kentucky Derby. He's the kind of guy who picks up the tab at the bar for out-of-town guests.

And that's the way he does business in the Senate. Ford has a strong preference for working out deals with his colleagues before they result in full Senate blowups.

On tobacco, for example, he was instrumental in working out a new price support program as part of a 1986 budget compromise that made permanent the 16-cent-a-pack federal tax on cigarettes.

He also helped work out an eventual 8-cent additional increase in the tobacco levy in the latest deficit-reduction package. The increase was agreed to early in the budget talks, avoiding political bloodshed and a possible showdown with lawmakers who were demanding far stiffer taxes.

Not that Ford is afraid of showdowns. In 1987, when Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., tried to end tobacco export subsidies, Ford threatened to retaliate against federal programs that help Rhode Island.

From his senior position on the Energy Committee, he vowed there would be "blood on the carpet of the Senate" if Western states succeeded in getting a coal slurry pipeline to help deliver their coal to markets to the South and East.

Those would be tough positions to defend if Ford were running for a national office. But they surely haven't hurt him in Kentucky, where he won his last election in 1986 with a state record 74 percent of the vote.

Ford's style would give one the impression that he shies away from the big issues of the day, but that's not the case.

Asked last week about the situation in the Persian Gulf, Ford stated his strong preference for giving the economic sanctions more time to work - lots more time, a year or more. "Vietnam with sand" was his description of the risk of war.

Not surprisingly, Ford's position was right in line with majority leader Mitchell's, a comfortable place especially if you're comfortable being No. 2.