Any ward politician worth his patronage allotment would have clamped on a hard hat, rolled up his sleeves, and waded into the smoking rubble after the Sept. 19-20 El Grande earthquakes that killed at least 10,000 people here and left tens of thousands more homeless.

Yet, as Mexicans across the social spectrum organized to rescue family members, neighbors and fellow workers, President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado reminded one foreign diplomat more of an "accountant scrutinizing a balance-sheet" than the head of the national family.

The president neither appeared at a press conference called after the first quake struck nor, following the second shock, did he show up on the balcony of the Presidential Palace to offer sympathy and succor to grieving familie assembled in the Zocalo plaza below.

Soon he became the butt of bitter jokes: "Why did de la Madrid make only 12 visits to earthquake-devastated sites?" The answer, according to the cynical disaster victims in the middle-class neighborhood of Tlatelolco: "Because he owns only a dozen leather jackets" -- a reference to his sartorial elegance displayed during televised appearances in afflicted zones.

The barbed joke reflects a growing perception that the 51-year-old chief executive and other technocrats in charge of this nation are so out of touch with the masses that they can neither respond effectively to catastrophes nor to the long-term need for economic growth and political reform.

When at least 36 hours elapsed before most government entities -- except some police and fire departments -- launched any semblance of a relief program, hundreds of private individuals mobilized search brigades, manned bulldozers, set up temporary housing, food distribution and medical facilities, and organized emergency transportation, frequently with the help of radio stations and, later, with volunteers from the United States and other countries.

A medley of factors made the neighborhood of Tlatelolco the focus of this activity. One was a tradition of participation in organizations spawned to pressure federal agencies to improve government-built housing. Another was an abundance of lawyers, physicians, journalists, and other self-confident members of the middle class adept at articulating their interests and dealing with the media.

The Tlatelolco movement, as the grassroots movement is known here, now has a 20-member executive committee comprising independents, as well as militants in parties ranging from the free-enterprise party, PAN, to the Trotskyite PRT.

Its leader, Dr. Cuauht,emoc Abarca, told me: "We must not allow the government to crush us. We are a community and strength lies in our joining together to defend our rights. Tlatelolco will triumph."

In short, De la Madrid and his technocrats have a bit of a revolt on their hands, a revolt that reaches back through the personalities of Mexico's leaders to roots in economic, political and demographic changes that have been taking place for decades.

Just as it was said that Karl Marx had never "touched the warts or smelled the belches of the working class," so it is with Citizen President De la Madrid, as he is designated on official documents.

Although he incessantly invokes memories of the 1910 revolution, extols his government's revolutionary heritage, and is de-facto head of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), De la Madrid exemplifies the tenicos or technocrats who, for 15 years, have broadened their influence in Mexico's authoritation regime at the expense of old-line politicos. (De la Madrid studied law in Mexico before earning a Harvard masters degree in public administration.)

These politicos despair at the ubiquitous presence in the government of well-educated cosmopolites who have little or no electoral experience, much less an appetite for pressing the flesh with snaggletoothed peasants, cutting deals with local bosses over tequila and Carta Blanca beer or keeping their ears to the ground.

As Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, after Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson rhapsodized over the Rusks, McNamaras and other luminaries at his first cabinet meeting: "Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one . . . had run for sheriff once."

None of Mexico's last three presidents had run for local, state, or federal office before his recruitment -- principally by the incumbents -- to hoist PRI's banner in a stage-managed presidential contest.

Economic and personal factors have lofted the star of tecnicos. For nearly four decades after its 1929 founding, the self-styled revolutionary party resembled Chicago's Daley machine writ large. The poor have continued to live as ragpickers, receiving little attention except from President Lazaro Cardenas who impelled agrarian reform and nationalized the oil industry 47 years ago.

The "economic miracle" of income growth exceeding 7 percent a year improved the lot and heightened the expectations of the blue-collar and middle classes from the 1940s until the late 1960s.

It was then that the miracle began to fade, producing tensions between elements of the middle class -- anxious for greater democracy and job opportunities for their children -- and the single-party-dominated regime.

These tensions sparked an explosion on Oct. 2, 1968, when the army, supervised by then-Interior Minister Luis Echeverria, killed hundreds of protesting students, housewives, and office workers in Tlatelolco's Plaza of Three Cultures, located only three miles from the center of the city.

Two years later, Echeverria, a party apparatchik, donned the green, white, and red presidential sash. After orthodox methods failed to stimulate a flaccid economy, he turned to populism and the creation of 761 quasi-public enterprises. He recruited technocrats and loyalists to fill the thousands of freshly minted bureaucratic posts -- an approach continued by his successor Jos,e L,opez Portillo (1976-82), who stressed that tecnicos were needed to manage Mexico's oil bonanza.

Ironically, Lopez Portillo endorsed reforms that have expanded the representation of opposition parties in Congress, while permitting greater freedom for a once- muzzled press. These changes have nourished criticism of tecnicos, including De la Madrid's original 20-person cabinet, which embraced only three certifiable politicos.

And for several years, the petroleum boom spurred growth and job creation before a seller's market for oil turned to one congenial to buyers in 1981.

Amid Mexico's recent economic depression -- the worst since the revolution -- the peasants and unions remained reassuringly tranquil. Poor, dispersed, and suffused with fatalism, the peasants lacked effective leadership. The unions were kept in check by Fidel Velazquez, the octogenarian patriarch of the 4-million-member Mexican Workers Confederation, the PRI's most potent sector.

Less passive was the middle class, segments of which reacted to a plunging national income and soaring prices by dispatching their savings to U.S. banks, evading newly imposed taxes, and either abstaining from voting or casting ballots for the Partido de Acci,on Nacional (PAN), a center-right, pro-business grouping.

Votes for the uninspiring PAN largely expressed anti- PRI sentiment. That is why hamfisted ballot-stuffing of the July 7 gubernatorial and legislative elections in Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon states along the U.S. border provoked few serious protests.

Nonetheless, the government's crisis performance after the earthquake has raised doubts about the competence of tecnicos to run a nation of 80 million people whose economy is the world's 14th largest, while nurturing the seeds of organized middle class opposition.

To begin with, critics excoriate De la Madrid and his cabinet for vacillating over whether to seek foreign assistance that ultimately proved invaluable. Foreign Minister Bernardo Sep,ulveda Amor adamantly refused to request U.S. assistance. His nationalistic posturing when people were dying severely weakened his standing. Mexico's dapper chief diplomat and a quintessential tecnico, he has hopes to succeed De la Madrid as president in 1988.

Mexico's colorless technocrats lack either popularity or well-cultivated ties to the people. This may explain their refusal to allow the army to implement fully its 188-page emergency plan in response to El Grande, even though the scheme had worked well in other disasters such as the 1982 eruption of the Chichonal volcano in distant Chiapas state.

Reportedly, Mexico City's Mayor Ram,on Aguirre Vel,azquez convinced the president to limit the armed forces' role in the September tragedy lest an effective performance in this media-infested capital whet the appetite of the ever-more professional 110,000-man army for greater political involvement.

Thus, the military's major function was to provide security. In so doing, it occasionally impeded spontaneous civilian rescue ventures, thereby damaging its image, a fact that embittered some generals toward the tecnicos who had restrained them. At the same time, the navy's reputation sparkled because after its ministry building collapsed, there were sweaty, grimy blue-uniformed officers relentlessly hunting for survivors in the ruins of its own and nearby buildings.

Wariness of politicos meant that, more than a week after the earthquake, no one in De la Madrid's entourage had even contacted Fidel Vel,azquez about how to draw trade unionists into the anti-disaster effort.

More curious as the technicos' reaction to the increasingly ugly mood of uprooted earthquake victims toward a government deemed indifferent to their misery. Lacking a politician's feel for the situation at hand, the mayor and the president sought to mimic the most dramatic political stroke of the last half-century; Carden,as' wildly popular seizure of 17 foreign oil firms in 1938. Thus, they expropriated 625 of disaster-stricken property on which new housing, schools, and parks would be established.

But in contrast to the late president's unambiguous initiative, the recent expropriation decree was hastily conceived and inartfully drafted. Hence, the enthusiasm for what initially seemed a bold move soon gave way to greater confusion and discontent. The plummeting confidence in the government was evidenced in accelerated capital flight as the peso, which stood at 384 to the dollar on Sept. 18 exceeded 500 by late November.

Enter the Tlatelolco movement and Dr. Cuauht,emoc Abarca. A pudgy, unpretentious, 30-year-old general practitioner who prefers a blue-striped windbreaker to a coat and tie, Abarca is an independent whose widespread support derives from sincerity, logic, and experience in a protracted struggle against government housing agencies.

To preserve Tlatelolco, Abarca has asked authorities to repair damaged structures instead of demolishing 23 buildings as proposed. In the case of traumatized residents anxious to move, he demanded compensation that will assure access to comparable housing, not the roughly 50 percent of replacement value offered by the Urban Development Ministry (SEDUE).

Like other damnificados, movement activists literally hiss their contempt for SEDUE's minister, architect Guillermo Carrillo Arena. As a public official in the 1960s, Carrillo Arena oversaw the construction of the hospitals and other public structures striken in September. Allegations have surfaced that these buildings were constructed of inferior materials. And when promises from other high officials, including the president, remained unfulfilled, Abarca and his movement stepped up their activities.

They have demonstrated, circulated a weekly newspaper, El Tlatelolco, appeared at press conferences, opened a legal-aid office, and convened well-attended, democratically conducted meetings. Yet, most threatening to the government has been the movement's catalytic role in forming a citywide Coordinadora Unica de Damnificados (CUD) that now embraces more than 28 groups, continually receives endorsements from small labor unions, and has attracted 30,000 to a protest march on the Los Pinos presidential mansion.

At first the PRI tried to coopt the movement by using Congresswoman Elba Esther Gordillo, who represents a large chunk of Tlatelolco even though she doesn't live in the neighborhood. Jeers and catcalls greeted her when she arrived, with bodyguards, at a movement rally where she unconvincingly declaimed the regime's goodwill toward the citizens. Her failure preceded the PRI's hugely unsuccessful attempt to win control of tenant associations in a majority of the 102 buildings.

The carrot and stick were then brandished at Abarca. He told me of two offers by SEDUE Housing Subsecretary Gabino Fraga to "name my price" and "say how much I wanted" for coming to terms. On Nov. 13, following rejection of these offers, a car -- its headlights off, bearing no license plates, and racing down the wrong side of the street -- almost struck the doctor as he walked home after dark, he said. "It was only an effort to scare me," Abarca added, "because they could have killed me if they'd wanted to." SEDUE later launched a well-financed public-relations campaign both to assert that Tlatelolco's problems had been "solved" and to redbait the unflappable dissidents.

Abarca continues to exude an optimism springing from the justice of his cause and the solidarity of the movement. Some of his colleagues are less sanguine. "Every day we hold out, we lose 5,000 pesos because of inflation and lost investment opportunities," observed a translator who serves on the executive committee and is prepared to fight to the last breath. "Moreover, living week after week with friends or relatives engenders friction, and Christmas is just around the corner. Let's face it, time is on their side."

Time is on the side of the tecnico-dominated government, which detests opposition, especially when it is independent, democratic, and brigaded by popular support. Divide-and-conquer tactics concentrated on those damnificados least able to hold out may assure the regime's success over Abarca and his Tlatelolco allies.

But this would be a pyrrhic victory for a regime whose standing is already low, according to a survey recently published in the newspaper Excelsior. It reported that only 37 percent of city residents considered the administration's crisis performance as "excellent" or "good" (even lower were evaluations of congressmen at 17 percent; political parties at 20 percent; and the police at 30 percent) compared to ratings of 98 percent and 93 percent, respectively, for the behavior of "other countries" and the "people."

The government would have received even lower marks had it not preserved order, stifled looting, and prevented the spread of disease. Indeed, Abarca himself praises the work of health and education officials.

Rather than snuff out the movement, the technocrats might replace diatribe with dialogue in dealing with its leaders. They could also dismiss despised cabinet ministers, prosecute wrongdoers, combat police corruption, select a responsive politician as this city's mayor, open PRI meetings to competing views, recruit congressmen and council members from the ranks of grassroots organizations, require these officials to live in their legislative districts, and scrap a crazy quilt of bodies such as the National Committee of Reconstructionin favor of a single office within the presidency to resolve the problems of El Grande victims.

A welcomed sign of greater sensitivity has been the replacement of two technicos -- the mayor's top administrator and a key borough head -- with politicos. Abarca finds such men more disposed than "arrogant" technocrats to negotiate with damnificados.

Cynicism now pervades Tlatelolco and other neighborhoods. The failure of De la Madrid and current PRI elites to win the loyalty of such communities will further diminish the regime's legitimacy and its prospects for long-term stability.