Who was that grinning, ruddy-cheeked man who flew in a couple of weeks ago and charmed the whole jaded town out of its hauteur?

That's right. It was Santa Claus himself, in the ample, pink-toned flesh. But, this being a very political year, the Santas have learned a thing or two from the polls and have jazzed up their act accordingly.

Santa-watching has become almost as sophisticated as poll-watching, and this year's ratings were made by a computer-selected sampling of kids, who were found to reflect the attitudes and opinions of the great mass of Santa Claus constituents. Their ratings are guaranteed to be at least as accurate as this year's pre-election polls.

The WOODIE'S F STREET Santa arrived with the sort of hoopla this election year has taught us to expect of a VIP. He flew into National Airport via Western Airlines and was greeted by a brass band, lots of paparazzi and a throng of favor-seeking well-wishers, all of whom had to pass through the airport security gates.

Western Airlines stewardesses tried to distract the waiting kids by pinning flight wings on them, but attention remained riveted on the runway. Finally a voice announced over the loudspeaker that "Flight 2508 from the North Pole will arrive in five minutes." The band struck up "Jingle Bells" and what to one's wondering eyes did appear but Santa Claus waving from an open window in the cockpit of a plane taxiing up to the gate.There were no other passengers -- either for security reasons or because Santa's advisers wanted to make a point about what airline deregulation would do to unpopular routes -- and Santa sprinted spryly up the stairs and into the crowd. He was tall, on the lanky side and his ruddy cheeks, close observation revealed, were caused not by broken blood vessels but by rouge, which had been applied with excessive zeal. Santa, to dramatize his commitment to public transportation, was going to ride Metro downtown and the crowd was invited to join him -- with our own Farecards. In the subway, jammed with kids and bewildered-looking airline passengers, Santa continued to work the crowd. Swaying with the car, he came around and spoke to each kid, asking them what they wanted but ducking all the tough questions about where his luggage was and how the reindeer were going to get here.

In front of Woodie's north building, an advance man -- possibly a refugee from the Lyndon Larouche campaign -- was warming up a small crowd with Christmas carols and magic tricks. After a few preliminaries, we all followed Santa inside to the toy department, where he sauntered around, opened a model-train display, disappeared briefly into a dressing room and emerged a new man, which in fact he was. One of the Santa-raters spotted him as soon as she sat on his lap and distracted him with talk of Mr. Mouth and Dr. Drill and Fill.

"He has blue eyes," she said. "The one on the Metro had brown eyes."

"Well, Santa Claus is magic. I guess he can change his looks whenever he wants to," said a Woodie's employee who was quizzed on the matter.

Later, however, he 'fessed up the dressing-room switch to an adult.

"Actually we have three Santas," he said. "I did the makeup on this one. Don't you think I did a good job of contouring?"

The answer is yes, but the rouge was excessive and Santa had a lot of trouble talking through his beard. When asked the key question -- would you vote for this man? all the kids in the sampling said yes.

"But adults wouldn't," said seven-year-old Andy, who voted for Carter in his school's straw poll. "He doesn't look like he cares about the Dow-Jones Industrials or anything."

Nonetheless, from a kid's-eye view this Santa rated 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.

To distract from questions raised about advancing age, Santas often go to great lengths to demonstrate their youthful vigor. Some jog and some ride horses. But this year's TYSONS CORNER Santa outdid them all by roller-skating into the mall in time to disco music. He didn't look a day over 25, and he certainly was in trim.

"How do I know why he's so thin? Maybe he went on a diet," replied a mother to a child who couldn't quite suspend her disbelief.

As a roller-skater, Santa would have scored a 10. He darted through the mall so gracefully and fast that even his PR woman and advance man couldn't keep track of hm.But when he sat down on his throne, the charisma collapsed. Pleasant as he was, he just didn't look like Santa. Youthful vigor doesn't mean anything if you don't even have a lap. Based mainly on originality and skating ability, the sample kids gave

At WHITE FLINT MALL, this year's Christmas theme is Santa's Candy Factory, and animated elves are busy operating strange machines that somehow turn out foil-wrapped facsimiles of Hershey's kisses. Santa, who likes to stress his rapport with the likes of factory workers, hangs out in a small cottage on the factory grounds. When the Santa-rating team arrived, he was giving a TV interview. We eavesdropped to see if he would name still another political figure who had declined to serve in his administration, but he confirmed the topics to pleasantries about the weather at the North Pole. He was short and pleasantly rotound, with his round face and ample cheeks making his body padding look real. His eyes were brown and his sallow complexion was not disguised by makeup and he was obviously no senior citizen. But he radiated amiability and generosity.

Attracted by the aura of generosity, the kids in the line kept thinking of more and more things to ask for.

"Do you think maybe he'll give me my presents right now?" asked a four-year-old who didn't know that Santa had built a career on promises of things to come.

Right in front of the rating team were some rather large sub-teens who were coaxing one another to sit on Santa's lap. Santa, a true good sport, held three of the heftier kids on his lap and entertained their requests for a doll house, money and a new stereo. When the "little kids" climed on his lap he greeted them warmly, promised to do his best, and gave them each a Hershey's kiss. The candy may have added a point to his rating, which turned out to be an 8.

The MAZZA GALLERIE bills its Santa as "the most traditional," which must mean that he doesn't have a gimmick. If he really had charisma, that would be fine, but this Santa could use a gimmick. All he had was a sleigh, a very tasteful red sleigh, surrounded by some tasteful fake Christmas trees tinged with white stuff. It was a fine backdrop for a photograph, and that seemed to be the whole idea. Santa was on the young and lean side and looked very Ivy League in his granny glasses. He was nice enough, but rather stiff. Five-year-old Becky put it this way: "You sat on his lap, but he didn't hold you."

The Mazza Santa got a rating of 5.

BEACON MALL is an unassuming shopping center on U.S. 1 south of Alexandria whose anchor store seems to be a Woolco. It has low-key, traditional decoration consisting of bears sawing logs and elves building igloos. And it has a Santa who brings his wife along, not just to smile at him with a glazed expression but to interpret his words into sign language for hearing-impaired children.

"Santa and I know some deaf people," she explained in both words and signs. Ms. Santa, though obviously young and slender in her skirted Santa suit, assumed an air of maturity by wearing granny glasses and powdering her eyebrows. While waiting for hearing-impaired kids to show up, she knitted in a down-home rocker within handholding reach of her husband's more imposing throne.

Ms. Claus' rocker, possibly because it was not elevated on a platform, seemed less frightening to the very young, James, at two the youngest member of the rating team, shied away from Santa but willingly rocked with Ms. Claus.

"You can tell me and I'll tell Santa and he'll try to get it for you 'cause he's real nice," she said.

The older kids confirmed that he was nice after he cuddled them on his lap, went over their lists, and gave them coloring books. They observed, however, that Ms. Santa should have helped him with his toilette, as rouge had turned his beard quite pink. Despite the pink cast, we gave this husband-wife act a rating of 9.

The appeal of a Santa who exhorts, ever so nicely, to virtue has somehow been over-looked at most of the shopping centers, but not, thank heavens, at IVERSON MALL. The Iverson Santa, though he sits in a fairyland setting surrounded by Yogi Bear and friends, exacts a moral price in return for promises of goodies to come.

"Do you help keep the house in order? Do you feed the dog and pick up your clothes?" he asked. "And remember to do everything your Mommy and Daddy tell you -- and your grandmother and grandfather, too, when they're around. They know an awful lot and they wouldn't tell you to do nothing that's bad for you."

This Santa could get away with such gentle persuasion probably because, of all the Santas we visited this season, he was the sole senior citizen, the only one whose aura of elderly sagacity wasn't put on with a powder puff. In fact, he wore no makeup at all, had age spots instead of rosy cheeks and blue eyes that looked more tired than twinkly. but even the sophisticated kids on the rating team didn't notice these things, and they fell for him the way kids fall for grandparents. They wanted to give him a 10 rating at first, but were persuaded to lower it to 9.

A 10 is reserved for the real thing, that "right jolly old elf" who will pop down the chimney one of these nights and deliver all those promises.