Mo Udall, who has served for 27 years as a congressman from Arizona, tried to get the Democratic nomination for President in 1976, only to be defeated in every primary by Jimmy Carter. Afterward, Udall said that he felt like the missionary in the Mark Twain story who set out to convert a tribe of cannibals: "They listened with the greatest of interest to everything that he had to say. Then they ate him."

Udall, one of the few American politicians who is gifted with the ability to remember and tell anecdotes effectively, has written a book that catalogs his humor, called "Too Funny To Be President." The first edition sold out immediately, indicating the heart-felt need in Washington for humor. Speaking in self-deprecation about the loss of an eye in childhood, Udall said, "I'm a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona. You can't find a higher handicap than that."Considering how seldom we have seen an American president with a sharp wit, Udall may very well have been too funny to be president. Only Abraham Lincoln had gifts similar to Udall's. His speeches and conversation were peppered with anecdotes and one-liners.

For instance, Lincoln's orders to his Secretary of War Stanton display a sly humor. "Please have the adjutant general ascertain whether second Lieutenant of Company D, 2nd Infantry, Alexander E. Drake, is entitled to promotion. His wife thinks he is. Please have this looked into."

Stanton opposed the president only up to a point, as illustrated by Lincoln's rebuff: "I personally wish Jacob R. Freese, of New Jersey, to be appointed a Colonel of a colored regiment - and this regardless of whether he can tell the exact shade of Julius Caesar's hair."

On Aug. 23, 1862, Lincoln said in a memorandum: "Today, Mrs. Major Paul of the Regular Army calls and urges the appointment of her husband as Brigadier General. She is a saucy woman and I am afraid she will keep tormenting me till I have to do it." Less than two weeks later, Major Gabriel R. Paul was commissioned a brigadier general.

Lincoln disliked approving the death penalty for what he called "leg cases," those who ran away rather than fight in the Civil War. When he remitted sentence he said wryly: "It would frighten the poor fellows too terribly to kill them."

The only other president to rival Lincoln in wit was John F. Kennedy, who brought an unparalleled verve to press conferences, speeches and general conversation. When Richard Nixon criticized Harry Truman's use of profanity in a speech during the 1960 campaign, Kennedy added his own censure. "I have sent him the following wire," said Kennedy. " `Dear Mr. President: I have noted with interest your suggestion as to where those who vote for my opponent should go. While I understand and sympathize with your deep motivation, I think it is important that our side try to refrain from raising the religious issue.' "

When President Kennedy was criticized for appointing his brother Robert, only 36 years old, as attorney general of the United States, he was undeterred. "I see nothing wrong with giving Bobby some legal experience as attorney general before he goes out to practice law."

With good reason, Mo Udall is not optimistic about the combined wit of the current and/or recent presidential candidates.

Gary Hart, he says, had an "irritating habit of laughing at his own stuff."

Even though Robert Dole is a Republican, Udall saw him as the wittiest candidate in the race. "He has a rich repertoire and the delivery of a stage-trained comic."

Indeed, while Dole's wit is often regarded as acerbic, with the possibility of getting him in trouble, it is clearly sharper than that of the other politicians. His most famous line was that delivered in 1983 at the annual Gridiron Club Dinner in Washington. "History buffs probably noted the reunion at a Washington party a few weeks ago of three ex-presidents: Carter, Ford and Nixon - see no evil . . . hear no evil . . . and evil." The comment effectively brought down the house and stole the show from all the other performers, including President Reagan.

Reagan, of course, has his own history of one-liners. At the same dinner, the president assessed the chances of Gary Hart by saying that "the country won't want a president who looks like a movie star." And then, referring to Sen. Alan Cranston of California, "Imagine Alan Cranston running for president at his age. He won't have the problem I had - the press won't be bugging him, does he dye his hair?"

Reagan also is known for the memorable one-liners he delivered following the attempt on his life, the most famous of which was the question asked of his surgeons: "I hope you are all Republicans!"

As capable as the candidates seem in both political parties, none of them possesses a wit that would compare to that of Senator Dole, with the possible exception of Bruce Babbitt of Arizona. Recently Babbitt, who according to Udall has improved a lot in his delivery and in his use of a sense of humor, made a caustic assessment of the chances of Gary Hart: "If Gary Hart had seen `Fatal Attraction' in 1983, he would be president today."

Judged on humor alone, the 1988 presidential race should've pitted Dole the Republican against Babbitt the Democrat. We need a light touch.