IT WAS STILL EARLY on Tuesday, before the Democratic Caucus in the Senate, and the name of Hubert H. Humphrey was on everyone's lips. He was going up against Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia for majority leader and everyone was saying he was going to lose. In the Senate office where I was, the counting was still going on. An aide hed just checked and the latest report was that Humphrey's own people were counting no more than 25 votes. Hubert H. Humphrey was going to lose.

I came up to the Senate with my head filled with Hubert Humphrey, wondering about this strange place called the Senate of the United States where Robert Byrd, formerly of the Ku Klux Klan, formerly of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, formerly an opponent of home rule for Washington, was going to give Hubert H. Humphrey a pasting.

I had read in the papers that Byrd had done favors for his colleagues, that he managed to make the Senate work, that he didn't surprise anyone with a sudden vote, that he covered for his colleagues when they were gone, that he kept them informed that he was the ultimate Senate technician - a parliamentary version of a door- man. He would make sure you got your papers in the morning, and your cab when you left for the office, and he would talk your dog and he would stop little old ladies with canisters from coming to your door and asking for money for orphans. Bobby Byrd would protect you.

Hubert Humphrey on the other hand was always running or to make commitments. Now he was doing it again, and a Senate aide was explaining that it wouldn't work this time - that he had no call on the man in the inner office whom he called the boss.

Later, the boss himself. He stood before the fireplace, talking as he put on his jacket to march to the caucus. He didn't know that Humphrey had already called Byrd and withdrawn, so he talked about the fight as if it was still on. Humphrey had brought this on himself, the senator said. Humphrey had dome into the race late and without enough votes. He should have withdrawn. There shouldn't be a fight. He was going to lose and lose badly. The senator sounded vexed. He had his jacket on now and was putting some papers into a briefcase. "A man ought to know his own imitations," he said.

Huert Humphrey has never known his own limitations. He got up Tuesday after four days of flu and went to the Senate. When he raised his hand for the oath, it shook. He has fought cancer this year, undergone chemotherapy, had an operation and toyed with entering the Democratic presidential primaries. He thought he should be leader of the Senate, that when the time came for the Senate to tell the White House what should be done for the country, Hubert Humphrey should do the talking.

Yesterday, the Democrats created a new position for Humphrey - deputy president pro tempore of the Senate. Now he will be going to the White House to share in the talking.

He shouldn't have been in Tuesday's leadership fight.His friends told him that. One of them went down to the Virgin Islands to see him. Humphrey walked a mile to meet the man and then walked the mile back to where he was staying.They went swimming and they talked. The friend made no headway. Hubert Humphrey, he said, "dances to his own music."

Sometimes the music is sweet. I remember a night in Baltimore when Humphrey had addressed an audience in a synagogue, a yarmulka on his head. He talked of Israel, and around the room you could see men crying, which was understandable, but he got to me, too, as I was leaning against the wall being every inch the blase newsman. I used to go door-to-door in my old neighborhood with a canister, raising money for Israel, and then I would take some of the money and buy a soda.That night Hubert Humphrey made me regret every one of those sodas.

I thought, too, of a day in Cleveland in 1972 when Hubert Humphrey spoke in the basement of a black church. He dipped into the Bible and came up with Goliath. He referred to the Goliath of a mismanaged welfare system, and the Goliath of bad housing and pretty soon the audience was giving him an "amen" for every Goliath he gave them. The Goliaths kept coming, and then Humphrey looked up at the ceiling and declared himself to be King David. Those were his words and in the back of the room reporters laughed.

We were still laughing over dinner that night when we told Hubert Humphrey stories. The man has become a whole category of political humor and there are stories about what he has said when he was carried away on the stump and how he wears his ambition on his sleeve. But later, back in my room. I turned on the radio and heard a Humphrey campaign spot. They played a portion of his 1948 speech to the Democratic National Convention when Humphrey had the termerity to talk about civil rights and was one of those who set the Democratic Party marching for that cause.

The words came out of the radio . . . "The time has come in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of state's rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." He was only the mayor of Minnesapolis at the time.

Even thenhe didn't know his own limitations.