Harold Stassen's favorite poem is "If" by Rudyard Kipling. Stassen has a copy in Kipling's own hand. His two favorite lines are:

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too ;

A PR man was waiting when he got off the elevator.

"Governor Stassen?" he said.

"Hey, how are you?" said Harold E. Stassen, shaking hands warmly, not breaking stride, candidate in motion.

"The room is.... uh, filling up," said the PR man.

"So we won't just be talking to each other, eh?" said Stassen. He turned directly to the PR man. He smiled. "Please, don't worry at all about this. It's going to be just fine."

Inside, on the 13th floor of the National Press Building yesterday, in a bath of white light, Harold Stassen announced to 15, maybe 20 people, that he was running for president of the United States in 1980. He was serious, even if the room seemed only three-quarters so.

This was his eighth time, right? someone wanted to know.

"No. Not true," said Stassen.

But did he really and honestly think he had any kind of chance?

"I would not change places with any of the other 14 Republican names being mentioned," said Stassen, braving a grin. The hands, raw and meaty, which more than 50 years ago belonged to a Minnesota farm boy, gripped either side of a lectern.

But in America, sir, a reporter said, there are some who think you are a... loser .

Inside of him, said Stassen, he didn't think of himself as a loser.

It went this way for another 20 minutes. Harold Stassen said he had a "depth of experience" to draw on, an "integrity of position." He said he would be willing to spend up all his finances to win the nomination. He said, finally, that running, that laying it on the line in the public arena, was "his life." He said he was a lot of things but mostly he was a participant.

Afterward, his press conference over, his herringbone overcoat back on, Stassen stood in the hallway and thanked people for coming. Someone asked the PR man if he was Stassen's campaign manager. "He doesn't usually name one this early," said the PR man.

Stassen himself said he was going back to his hotel. He wanted to make some calls to some fellow Republicans on the Hill. "And depending on how it goes, I may be visiting around with some senators today."

What people cannot understand, of course, is why . Is it all a gag, or some hopeless lure for the light, or what? "Smart lad, to slip betimes away/from fields where glory does not stay ," wrote A. E. Housman about an athlete dying young. Harold Stassen knows that poem.He likes "If" better.

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

... If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster .

Forty years ago, when none of this was a mystery, Harold Stassen was the boy wonder of Minnesota politics. He was elected at 31, the youngest governor in American history. He served two terms, was elected for a third in 1942. He hasn't won an election since, though he did hold cabinet rank under Eisenhower from 1955 to 1958.

He has run for president, or let himself be considered a candidate, in 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1976. He has run for the vice presidency at least once, for governor of Pennsylvania twice, for mayor of Philadelphia once.

A Try for the Senate

Earlier this year, he moved back to Minnesota, to Dakota County where he grew up, and tried to mount a campaign for the U.S. Senate. He got 5 percent in the Republican primary. It was, says his current press release, "his 11th consecutive loss." The morning after his primary loss, he was back in his law office in St. Paul. He had work to do, he said.

If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;

... Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools

Somewhere, no one can exactly say when, America stopped believing in the dreams of Harold Stassen. Self-parody became the price of style. Like an old vaudevillian, Harold Stassen kept on. He would have to be blind and mute to be unaware of the ridicule. He is neither. Ridicule isn't important, Harold Stassen says. Playing a part "in the process" is. Working to get your chance.

Think of the great Wallenda who, when asked why he did what he did, shrugged and said, "Up there, on the wire, is life; everything else is waiting." Think of Housman, who said of his fallen athlete, "Runners that renown outran and the name died before the man ." Somewhere to the middle of these two truths lies the essential truth of Harold Edward Stassen.

Yesterday morning, 90 minutes before facing the lions, Harold Stassen sat in his hotel room in the Capitol Hilton. A waiter had wheeled in breakfast. It was early, but Stassen had already gone through the papers, listened to the news, made scratch notes to himself.

He is a large man -- over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds -- even larger now that the encircling girth of years has caught him. He is 71, and the stiffness in his walk and the ruts in his great ruddy Norseman's face help give that away. But you wouldn't call him old and you wouldn't call him old-fashioned. His hairpiece is cut mod. The blue pin-stripe suit has cuffs on the flared pants. The tie is paisley.

The Biggest Campaign

"This will be my first full-scale, fullmeasure campaign," he says now, the voice large as the body it is encased in. Already he sounds as though he were before a bank of microphones. "I will work both from my home base in Minnesota, and from our second home, in Pennsylvania. We intend to have a nationwide fund-raising effort, starting in January. Lots of direct mail solicitation."

Then this will be his largest effort since '48, when he almost wrestled the prize from Tom Dewey?

"The biggest ever. '48 was just... partial."

And he will enter primaries?

"Of course. That's what I mean when I say the process. Really, it's the only basis I care to be entered in an election at all -- laying it out, debating the issues. You have to be willing to run." No, he isn't sure just how many primaries. "You have to evaluate as you go along." But New Hampshire, certainly. He will go there "quite soon," maybe in February. No, he has no staff yet.

Age will be against him, he agrees, admitting to the first small chink in his armor. "That will be one of the factors. Of course, when I was first elected governor, age was against me, too. They said I was leading 'a diaper brigade.' Now I want to be the oldest elected president in history. And one of the best."

The voice suddenly rises; his face lifts. "Of course I have observed many men in history -- Churchill, Gen. De Gaulle, Bernard Baruch -- who accomplished some of their most splendid things for their country in their 70s and 80s."

Harold Stassen might be easier to understand if he were simply dazed -- some flag-draped, top-hatted, horn-tooting perennial announcing his "candidacy" on a street corner. Stassen is nothing of the sort. He is a respected -- and, some say, brilliant -- lawyer, with offices in four cities and three decades of experience in international relations. And for all of the drain on his funds through the years, he is still close to a millionaire. He listed his assets in the Minnesota primary race between $500,000 and $1.25 million.)

"Actually, I'm in a better position, financially, to run now than I've ever been," he says. He says he is serious about exhausting his personal resources if it comes to that.

Wins, Losses

And he has a record to show, not just a losing one. In Minnesota, where he won his first county attorney race at 23, some still regard Harold Stassen a winner. Under his governorship, Minnesota passed the Labor Peace Act (still on the books); eliminated patronage (he "Stassenated" the state payroll from 17,000 employes to 10,000); brought the first black officer into the state national guard.

After he lost the nomination to Dewey in Philadelphia in '48, Stassen became president of the University of Pennsylvania. In '52, he was out on the stump again, mostly as a stalking horse for Eisenhower. At the convention, he released the Minnesota delegation so Ike could win on the first ballot. Ike didn't forget him: He became director of foreign aid, was counselor on disarmament, had cabinet rank. In '56, he led a campaign to dump Nixon from Ike's ticket. He won't brag about it today.

"I know I've had an impact, that some things I've done have really counted for world peace, for the passion of the individual."

Harold Stassen has been married to his wife, Esther, for nearly 50 years. She is an artist, he says. He will not say whether she, or his two grown children, actively support his presidential dreams.

"Let's just say I've never put the burden of decisions on others." He is pulling on his lip. A coffee cup is poised. "Speeches and dinners would be pretty boring to an artist, I guess."

He is asked about the ridicule, some of the media's thinly veiled contempt.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds' worth of distance run ,

"I can remember a cartoon -- I think I still have it -- of the Harold-Stassen-for-President Convention. It was in a phone booth." He laughs, still genuinely amused. "Look, I always try to take the other view into account, no matter how opposed to you they are."

Will he evaluate his chances? "Oh, I wouldn't want to characterize it. Maybe I'm a long shot, maybe I'm not. All I know is that it was very clear to me I had to enter this campaign. The country is in very serious trouble. Inflation could wreck our American way of life."

He is asked if this will be his last hurrah. "I never think in those terms. I'm going to be active as long as God gives me breath." A breath comes.

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son .