BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. -- Is a liberal in a limousine a limousine liberal? Not if he's Sen. Paul Simon, the Illinois Democrat who may be the least likely of the presidential candidates to be seduced by the fleeting pleasures of the Fleetwood. He is in one today, reluctantly, because that's what a California friend is chauffeuring him in to a noontime fund-raising reception in Los Angeles. He'd be the same Paul Simon -- guileless, clearheaded, cant-free -- if he were in a pickup truck on the Iowa county fair circuit, where he has been and will be again.

The road to the White House necessarily tracks over Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills and neighboring Bel Air. This stretch of the political highway is as close as it gets to the roads being paved with gold. Other metaphors -- fat cats adoze in money trees -- have attracted all the current candidates and their campaign treasurers to Southern California. They come to raise money to finance another trip to raise money.

Simon, more at ease with the flow of ideas than cash, is bearing up. He explains that funds, like endorsements, have been coming in. He'll make it the five months to Iowa and New Hampshire, and in March to his own state primary where a success can overcome whatever may happen in the Super Tuesday southern primary. In Illinois, Simon reminds voters of earlier state giants, Paul Douglas and Adlai Stevenson.

Simon is being embraced by California Democrats from the center and left. At the Los Angeles reception, donors were given former governor Pat Brown's address as the mail drop for checks. The left is chipping in with its rarer currency, kind words. The L.A. Weekly, Southern California's Village Voice and its equal in snarl about politicians, has run interviews and stories on Simon. It said last month that of the current Democratic candidates, "Simon offered the most humane, considered and consistent vision for liberals and progressives." He promises "to be the most effective of the group in putting through meaningful and necessary changes if elected."

The active left finds Simon appealing for two reasons, both of which the passive center, where most of the votes are, can be rallied to: He isn't an advantage-seeker skulking to the right to grovel for victory, and, second, his lack of personal sheen and distaste for posturing are giving him the charisma of anticharisma. After two terms of a telegenic presidency, the public may be ready -- famished for -- a leader who is better at living with himself than a camera.

On issues, Simon is in the company of conventional Senate liberals: economic but no military aid to Central America; elimination of military programs for the MX, Star Wars and California's B1 bomber. He favors reversing the policies of a recent four-year period under Ronald Reagan in which military spending increased by 88 percent and funds for education, housing, health care and the environment decreased. On the mini-wars that Reagan has waged in Grenada, Libya and Nicaragua, and in the loss of 241 Marines in Beirut and the 37 sailors four months ago in the Persian Gulf, Simon talks of "violence leading to violence."

Central America "is a good example of the folly of that policy," Simon argues. "It is not only folly. Ultimately, if the unthinkable were to happen ... It is likely to happen with an incident in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere. For example, when we put our mines in the harbor in Nicaragua, clearly contrary to international law, what if one of those mines had sunk a Soviet vessel? The Soviets would have felt compelled to respond." "

Much of what Simon is currently saying to audiences about deficits, education and peace can be found in the 11 books he has written. He is one of the few in the Senate, as he was in the House for 10 years, to write his own weekly newsletters. The prose ranges from casual commentary to insights of psychological subtlety.

He picked up the writing habit early when he left college to found and edit his own newspaper, the Troy (Ill.) Tribune. In his 1984 book, "The Glass House: Politics and Morality in the Nation's Capital," Simon is a press critic. In discussing newspaper editorials that are "too flabby," he is the rare liberal who praises a conservative newspaper -- the St. Louis Globe-Democrat -- for attacking people like himself but writing with "punch."

If conventional wisdom is right -- it usually isn't because what's wise opposes convention -- a liberal can't be elected president. That's been said before of Simon -- when he first ran for the House from a conservative downstate district and when he ran for the Senate in 1984, Reagan's year. Simon explains his success: "We are not an ideological people. We want practical answers."

That's not a line destined for a quotation book. But if honest talk counts more than slick talk, it's part of the book on Simon.

1987, Washington Post Writers Group