WASHINGTON (AP) _ Before his first debate with Susan Molinari, House candidate Bob Gigante received an unusual warning from his consultants: ''Whatever you do, don't make her cry.''

Running against a woman can be a delicate business. Just ask George Bush.

''Remember 1984? I can't forget it,'' Bush said recently of his vice presidential race against Democrat Geraldine Ferraro.

The subject arose after Clayton Williams, the Republican nominee for Texas governor, said he'd rather run against state Attorney General Jim Mattox than state Treasurer Ann Richards. The two Democrats are in a runoff April 10.

''I wouldn't be as comfortable in battling with a woman,'' Williams said.

''I know exactly what he means and I refuse to elaborate on it,'' Bush sympathized.

And no wonder. The political landscape is strewn with faux pas by men - mostly older ones - more accustomed to thinking of women in the kitchen than on the campaign trail.

''The men are nervous,'' says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. ''Women running is just plain different and men sense it.''

''They are very confused,'' adds Republican pollster Ann Stone. ''The rules have changed very quickly over the last 10 to 15 years. You've got to kind of feel sorry for them. ... Maybe their heart's now in the right place but their mouth's not there yet.''

Bush got himself in trouble six years ago when he boasted that he had ''kicked a little ass'' in a debate against Ferraro. The same race featured Mississippi agriculture commissioner Jim Buck Ross asking Ferraro if she could bake blueberry muffins. ''Yes. Can you?'' she replied.

A few years later, men told women in Wisconsin and New Hampshire that they shouldn't be running for Congress because they had young children. One of them, Sen. Gordon Humphrey, R-N.H., later apologized and called his statement ''just plain stupid.''

''There are some things you just don't do. I think you have to be a little bit more chivalric, if that's the right word,'' said California Attorney General John Van de Kamp, who is vying with former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Van de Kamp offered only one specific: he wouldn't punch his opponent in the nose. But he still is taking a few swings at Feinstein, including an attack ad that ends, ''Dianne Feinstein - if she couldn't manage a city, how could she manage California?''

In contrast, Martha Layne Collins was elected governor of Kentucky in 1983 ''in part because her opponents never could figure out how to run against her. They never did point out anything wrong with her,'' said Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman.

''Lesson No. 1 about running against a woman is if it walks like a candidate and talks like a candidate, you treat it like a candidate,'' added Hickman, whose clients include Van de Kamp and Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat trying to fend off a challenge by GOP Rep. Lynn Martin.

Women like Martin and Richards, who have hired two of the hardest-hitting media consultants in the business, are making it easier for men to attack by proving that they can be as aggressive as the next guy.

They also are coming up with some deft responses to gender-related missteps.

Ferraro's good-natured comeback to Ross's blueberry muffin question was considered ideal. Richards came up with a good one-liner after Williams - a self-styled symbol of the free-wheeling, boot-wearing Texan - confessed he wouldn't relish running against her. ''Even cowboys get the blues,'' she said.

Williams, 58, has been even bluer since he compared the bad weather at his ranch last month to a rape. ''If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it,'' he said. The incident created a furor and Williams eventually apologized ''from the bottom of my heart.''

Stone attributes Williams' remarks, both on rape and running against women, to his generation and upbringing in Texas. ''His lexicon hasn't caught up with the times yet,'' she said.

But while men of Williams' age may not be used to competing with women, many younger candidates like Gigante, 41, consider it routine. The New York Democrat, who has four children and a working wife, was surprised by his coaches' advice to be tough on Molinari without making her cry.

''Why would she cry?'' Gigante asked. ''She's a mature woman. She's held office. She wasn't going to cry when I attacked her on an issue just like I wasn't going to cry if she attacked me.''

For the record, Molinari did not cry. She won the election and was sworn in last week as a Republican congresswoman from Staten Island.