NEW YORK -- Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) is the "uncandidate" in the presidential race. He wears bow ties. He is short. He is a neo-nothing, neither conservative nor liberal, but a plain old-fashioned Democrat. Others in his party summon the memory of John F. Kennedy, but Simon embraces the "give 'em hell" image of Harry S Truman. The other night, though, he forgot who he was supposed to be. He gave 'em heck.

At a fund raiser here ($1,000 a person), Simon attracted a monied crowd. The site was the swanky Carlyle Hotel, once the Gotham haunt of the urbane Kennedy. Simon was an object of curiosity, and the inquisitive came to look him over, to touch the goods and hear what he had to say. They included Arthur Krim, a major Democratic fund raiser, and the borough president of Manhattan, David Dinkins. New Yorkers were doing what they love most: shopping.

Simon is the mystery man of the Democratic field. The oldest of the candidates (he's 58) and an unadorned liberal, he nevertheless repeatedly won election to the House from the conservative "Little Egypt" area of Southern Illinois. His heroes are former senators Paul Douglas of Illinois and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. To a liberal, Simon is unimpeachable on civil rights, education and, as he says, his "willingness to use the tools of government." The songs he sings are oldies but goodies.

But maybe most important, Simon has climbed in the polls. Among Democratic candidates, he is ranked third. His standing may reflect some confusion between the Illinois Democrat and the popular singer of the same name, but just as likely it's a testament to Simon's reputation as a latter-day Truman. A Democratic Party besotted with candidates of awesome but uninspiring expertise is looking to fall in love. Simon's New York audience seemed on such a quest. It paid for the privilege. The night earned Simon about $100,000, but even in politics money is not everything. The wallet sometimes goes where the heart will not.

Nevertheless, not only singers have to perform, and so Simon defined the sort of Democrat he is. He is not afraid to make the hard choices, he said. He was one of three senators to vote against the tax reform bill. He talked jobs, full employment, the plight of the cities, the need for education reform and the need to fund education so it can be reformed. But only once, when he mentioned the importance of education, did he seem to touch the heart.

Later, Simon and his small entourage scurried across town to an apartment overlooking Central Park to woo more Democrats. His party is in its Tupperware stage. Activists gather to hear what the candidates are selling. There is nothing new about this, but this year the ritual has taken on a certain urgency. None of the candidates has a built-in constituency and, indeed, some of them are so little-known they have to begin each speech with a resume. Most have responded to a self-created draft, having been convinced by both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan of the truth of the American myth: Anyone can be president.

Simon's last audience of the night was a high-powered one. It included former New York representative Richard Ottinger, the actress Cicely Tyson and Richard Holbrooke, a former undersecretary of state in the Carter administration.

Simon was asked about the need for a tax increase. He ducked. He would rather lower unemployment, which, in turn, would lower the deficit. His audience was skeptical. He was asked about the administration's plan to "reflag" Kuwaiti tankers. Again Simon went into his rope-a-dope number. His answer, like the administration's policy, lacked clarity. He touched all the bases -- freedom of the seas, the critical importance of the area -- but as he was rounding home, Ottinger tagged him out. "What the hell are we doing, Paul?" he snapped. Simon simply couldn't say.

Maybe Simon was intimidated by the crowd. Maybe he was tired. An often courageous and always thoughtful man, he nevertheless failed to live up to his advance billing. A survey of the group afterward by one of its members showed unanimous disappointment.

That night, the fires of Truman were banked. The shoppers were not impressed. The group had seen Bruce Babbitt, Richard Gephardt, Jesse Jackson and Charles Robb as surrogate for the hesitant Sam Nunn. Jackson moved them, Gephardt was impressive, but those are qualities the group would like to find in a single candidate, not two. Like the Democratic Party itself, so far it has not.