He is almost silken on the stump, this man with a reputation for bluster and beligerence, sometimes almost breathtakingly good even when he is sick. And tonight he is sick.

He had been on the road for four days, blitzing through Wisconsin and Minnesota, making up lost ground with stops in six Iowa cities, then jetting to this southern steel city for a $125-a-plate dinner before heading back to Houston.

He brought a cold with him from Texas and the snowy, frigid northland has turned it into bronchitis. The exhaustion penetrates his body as he slumps in the back seat of his car. His voice now is just a growly whisper.

"You can feel the difference," says John B. Connally. "The intensity is building."

The large and enthusiastic crowds that have been turned out at every stop are honey for his aching throat but perhaps only an illusory shot of adrenaline for his campaign.

Who can tell? In the fantasyland that often passes for the presidential campaign trail, no candidate can be certain whether the cheers of the crowd are a sign of support or the natural response to a powerful performance. Bob Hope draws big crowds, but would anyone elect him president?

For Connally, a powerful performer, it is more than an idle question, for his campaign has so far failed to take hold in the way he and his staff had hoped. Incredibly, with 1980 yet to dawn, he is running short of time.

"It will be difficult if not impossible," he says. For Connally, the road is not handshaking and kaffee klatsches but spreading the gospel. Every candidate has his own version, and Connally's is one of the most polished around.

He has his applause lines down pat. Hear him as he stands before more than 650 supporters in a downtown Birmingham hotel. "I'm a rancher. I'm a farmer. I'm a conservationist. I'm an environmentalist. But I'm no radical environmentialist, because the worst environment of all is to be cold, hungry and unemployed. And I say it's time we stopped taking scientific advice from the Jane Fondas and the Ralph Naders. . . ."

No one has ever heard the end of the sentence. The applause is too deafening.

It is the same when he fires his rocket at the Japanese, his whipping boy for America's trade deficit. Few Americans agonize over the nation's trade balance, but when Connally shouts that unless Japan agrees to buy more Iowa beef and Florida citrus, "they can sit on the docks of Yokohama in their Toyotas eating their own oranges and watching their own TVs," the pent-up frustrations over OPEC oil ministers, the ayatollah and all the events of the last decade that have led to America's tarnished image abroad explode in a chorous of cheers.

It is that kind of stump rhetoric that has given Connally his reputation for bluster, but there are times when he forgoes the easy shots for the unexpected answer.

In Dubuque, Iowa, a reporter asks for "your observations on how labor unions contribute to inflation."

Connally pauses.

"Their wage settlements this year have been in the range of 7, 8, 9 percent," he says. This is really rather remarkable with the inflation rate running 13 to 14 percent. I find it pretty difficult to find fault with that."

In Davenport he is asked about Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the basic welfare program.

"AFDC is a worthwhile program," he says. Then, as if he remembers that he is reaching for the conservation vote, he summons up the devil of a bloated bureaucracy to take a half-hearted shot at the program. "It's not the program, it's the administrative system that is the problem," he says.

And what does this candidate whose contributors list is studded with corporate executives think of the proposed Chrysler bailout?

"I haven't seen anything yet to justify it," he says.

Still, what John Connally is preaching -- and his is the style of an evangelist not a politican -- is a largely unambiguous view of the problems facing the United States and a set of simple cures. In short, he tells his audiences, the country is in deep trouble, at home and abroad. But don't blame yourselves. Blame the government.

He ticks the problems off in short order, his litany of gloom: raging inflation, record interest rates, a huge national debt, energy dependence on foreign nations, a declining dollar, the terrible trade deficit, declining productivity, a weakened defense posture, an era of permissiveness, a threat to democracy.

"How's the government trying to stop inflation?" he asks his audience, his voice hardly showing the strain of 13 appearances in one day. "With tight money and high interest rates. The government's saying to people, 'Don't build houses, don't buy houses, don't buy cars, don't buy tractors, don't buy new equipment, don't borrow money. Restrain yourselves. Sacrifice.'"

But it is a curious solution he offers, one base on the quicksand of anticipated revenues. For Connally tells his audiences that the answer to inflation, to high interest rates, to declining productivity, to the trade deficit is a combination of balancing the budget and a $50-billion to $100-billion tax cut. All of this is possible, he says because of the projected budget surpluses of more than $250 billion over the next four years.

He would, he says hold federal spending at current levels, rather than letting the budget grow. Then, he offers a three-part tax cut: The first is to defer taxes on up to $10,000 invested in a savings account or the stock market until the money is used for some other purpose. That would build capital, he said. The second is a new, rapid depreciation schedule for businesses: 10 years for all buildings, five years for all stationary equipment, three years for movable equipment, and one year for government-mandated safety or pollution equipment. The third is a general tax cut for "forgotten Americans" in the $15,000 to $350,000 tax brackets.

His path to energy independence is similarly explicit: mine more coal, build more nuclear plants and build them faster, open up more federal land to oil and gas exploration set aside clean air laws for five to seven years to allow the burning of high sulfur coal. He also calls for a North American Common Market with Mexico and Canada as a vechicle for trading energy resources.

His defense program includes more spending and a U.S. presence in the Middle East (part of his controversial Mideast peace plan that calls for Israel to return to 1967 borders and assurances on oil from the Arab nations).

If it sounds a little unbelieveable that shomeone trying to win the White House would burden political audiences with the details of a new depreciation schedule, you should hear it from the lips of John Connally. His is a speech of interchangeable parts and he glides effortlessly from one to another. Sometimes the connectors are there, sometimes they are not. It makes little difference to his audiences.

Even with a crackling voice and a weakened body, it is a performance worth seeing. But it doesn't substitute for organization, and ultimately it may prove to be his undoing. For his is the problem of any electrifying personality: he may believe too much in the power of his own voice.

Which is why, in the darkness of the Birmingham freeways, he says in that growly whisper, "There's no doubt that we can do it, if we can just reach the people in time."