T he treasurer of Winnebago County, Ill., told Ernest Hollings, the senator from South Carolina, "Kennedy and Mondale aren't doing much in the polls. If one of them stumbles . . ."
"Good golly," said the senator, as if the possibility of a front-runner stumbling had just occurred to him.
Hollings was in Baltimore at 8:30 on a weekday morning to address members of the National Association of Counties -- NACO to insiders. Since January, Hollings had been traveling at the behest of his PAC, the Committee for a Competitive America, the picture of a white-haired statesman in elegant pinstripes. Hollings needed the support of people like the NACOites, whose suits were shinier than his and who wore name tags encrusted with insignia of various states -- trees, flowers, cows, as well as red-white-and- blue donkeys, Pearl beer decals and fuzzy balls wearing cowboy hats.
Hollings took his place on the dias. The treasurer took a seat in the front row and inserted a long thin cigar between his teeth. His name was Douglas Aurand, the first Democrat elected treasurer of Winnebago County in 138 years, and he laughed at Hollings' mellifluous debunking of Reagan's economic policies.
Hollings, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, ridiculed the idea of free enterprise zones, described Reagan's economic policies as "Reagamortis," and said, "After the November elections, we're gonna huddle like a bunch of chickens in a corner of the barn during a hailstorm . . . We either have to cut Social Security benefits, or increase taxes."
"At least it's a response to the president," Aurand said, when Hollings was done. "I'll give him an A for not being afraid to talk to the problems."
Aurand is 40 years old, has two teen-age children, and describes himself as a moderate in a predominantly rural slice of middle America. He attended the last three Democratic conventions -- as a Muskie delegate in '72, a Humphrey delegate in '76 and a Carter delegate in '80. He planned to attend his fourth convention in '84. Like everybody else, he was looking for a winner in 1984.
"Hollings' biggest problem is overcoming the image Carter left of Southerners," he said. "Mondale's tarnished by Carter, too. I'm saying no towned by Roo Kennedy. The Democrats have always been a coalition party, but labor party membership is decreasing and the new white collars"--the moral equivalent of faded blue collars--"won't vote for Kennedy . . . I don't think he or Mondale will be the nominees. The party needs a new image, a new face. You don't beat an incumbent president with somebody who's been around so long.
"I like Hart." Then he added, "Now if Glenn could talk like Kennedy .. ."
Postscript: Ned Coll was the guy with the rubber rat. He shook it in Sam Yorty's face during a debate in New Hampshire in 1972, to symbolize the plight of the poor, and says he got "about 400" votes in the primary election.
Coll now works in Hartford, Conn., for a private agency that provides jobs, food and clothing for the poor. "I'm not inclined to run," he says. However, "If nobody's talking about the issues, then I might be tempted to speak out again .. ."