The morning after Sen. Sam Nunn announced he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination, that other notable noncandidate, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, was on the phone to me. No, Cuomo was not reconsidering; far from it. His message was that even without Nunn, the Democrats have terrific candidates running. ''An embarrassment of riches'' was his phrase, and he said it without laughing.
The governor said ''it is not fair'' for the press to keep characterizing the Democratic contenders as ''the seven dwarfs.'' He's right. It's a dumb phrase that gains little from repetition. And it overlooks the fact that each of the seven contenders has some solid credentials and shows growing campaign skill.
Cuomo is also correct, in my book, when he says the speculation about a ''brokered convention'' picking someone outside the field of active candidates is ''silly . . . not only unlikely but undesirable.''
But what really caught my ear was his almost offhand remark that he would probably announce his own favorite ''sometime in February.'' That's the period -- right after the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 16 New Hampshire primary -- when the AFL-CIO is also likely to take another look at its delayed endorsement decision. Would it not be interesting if the Democratic Party's most prominent governor and its largest interest group both threw their weight behind the winner of the New Hampshire primary, where Michael Dukakis is the early favorite, just as he heads into the March 8 superprimary involving 14 Deep South and border states?
The gurgles you can hear in the background come from the designers of the superprimary, choking on their own naivete'. They persuaded all the Dixie legislatures to set up primaries on March 8, in hopes of diminishing the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire and reducing the influence of the party's liberal interest groups and leaders.
It was always a dubious idea, as at least one prominent Dixie Democrat, South Carolina's veteran national committeeman Don Fowler, kept saying. Now, with Nunn's noncandidacy, it is likely to backfire on the moderate-conservatives who designed it.
By picking a date soon after New Hampshire, they increased the ''halo effect'' surrounding the winner of that primary. That might have been all right had there been a southerner who could, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976, sneak off with a plurality victory in New Hampshire. But the architects of the ''southern strategy'' neglected the single most vital ingredient. They failed to secure a candidate.
Former Virginia governor Charles Robb, an assiduous promoter of the superprimary, told those who importuned him to run, ''I'm not ready to be president.'' His modesty was appealing -- and perhaps prudent -- but it didn't help. So Nunn became the South's hope, until he too backed out.
You can't blame him. Defense issues, his strong suit, have never been really useful in peacetime campaigns. People are happy to have a president who understands the technicalities of the defense budget, but they don't want to hear him explain them in every speech.
The cautious Georgian knew -- if some columnists found it convenient to forget -- that many of his domestic-policy views placed him far outside the mainstream of the national Democratic Party. He was properly skeptical whether the Washington establishment figures urging him to run could actually deliver any delegates at the Democratic convention.
It is late in the game for anyone else to get into the race, so the power brokers of the South will have to make do with three border-state contenders: Sens. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee and Joseph Biden of Delaware and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, all of whom more than once have lapsed into liberalism.
Odds are that many conservative whites in the South are going to inspect the Democratic field and decide they'd have a better chance of finding their kind of president in the Republican primary. In eight of the Dixie states, they're free to take that walk on March 8.
The more of them who leave, the higher the proportion of blacks and liberals remaining in the Dixie Democratic primaries -- and that portion is high already, as Fowler unavailingly pointed out to the architects of the superprimary.
That should help the candidate Cuomo and the AFL-CIO find in New Hampshire. But he will be hard put to beat Jesse Jackson, the Greenville, S.C., native who is assuredly the one southerner the designers of the southern superprimary were not aiming to assist.
Jackson is waging a nonracist George Wallace campaign, blasting multinational corporations and greedy Wall Street operators, appealing to the sense of injustice and insecurity among farmers, textile and steel workers, taxi drivers and beauticians who will join blacks in that day's Democratic primary.
With those folks voting, Jackson's populist rhetoric and appeal to blacks give him a real shot at zooming into the lead in the Democratic delegate race next March 8. The southern primary will not finally settle the identity of the Democratic nominee. But its designers have to reflect on the flaws in their scheme, which are likely to boost Jesse Jackson, the candidate with the least chance of carrying Dixie in November.