No matter what the polls say, you have to remember everywhere he goes hands reach out for his touch, signs saying "All the way with JBA" reach out for his sight, and the sounds of college students stomping and shouting, "We want John, we want John," reach out for his ears. s

You have to remember that he's been doing this for 16 months now, and almost every day someone in a shopping center, city street or hotel lobby leans over to him and says, "Thank you for giving us a choice."

So there was complete sincerity in his voice when John B. Anderson told a crowded room of supporters in Boston Friday night that he is still going to win the presidency.

"It's out there . . . the people are there. The spirit is there. There are just millions and millions of people who really care, who aren't locked in automatically into the system, who see the need for change, a lot of change, who are willing to continue our great political experiment."

When he finished, Anderson was given a white coffee mug with a telling inscription: "Don't let the turkeys get you down."

Anderson isn't. He hasn't given up. He still genuinely thinks that by some mystical process, he will win this election on Nov. 4.

But as his campaign moved to Schenectady to Toledo to Kalamazoo to Springfield, Mass., to Boston to Hartford this week, Anderson slowly, tentatively, but unmistakably began toying with an idea he has long dismissed: forming a third party.

The tools are there. In the six months since his independent candidacy began, Anderson has built a reputation as a major political figure, a loyal following and a political organization in every state.

More importantly, Anderson has the means to finance a third party effort. He now has a list of 217,000 contributors who have given $12.4 million since January. This is almost three times as many names as the Democratic National Committee has on its donors list, almost half as many as the wealthier Republican National Committee has.

Most of the 217,000 persons have contributed more than once to Anderson. Fund-raising experts estimate conservatively he could raise $3 million a year from this list for a third party effort.

Anderson insisted he would not form a third party when he broke from the Republican Party to run as an independent in April. His strategists, knowing the dismal record of third party candidacies, wanted to portray Anderson as something different -- an independent candidate waging a "national unity campaign."

But now Anderson openly talks about whether his effort "ought to be institutionalized in some other form" after the election. Asked Friday in Springfield, Mass., about forming a third party, he said:

"I would be willing to spend a great deal of time in the post-election period . . . talking to a great many people to arrive at a final answer to that question. I can't decide it myself. I can't decide it today, or I can't decide it in a week."

On Friday night, he told a press conference here it "would be my clear preference" that his campaign would result in "the reformation, the rehabilitation and reinvigoration of the two party system." But he added, "I can't believe this is something that has been for naught" and would not survive in some way. "I can see through a glass only darkly as to what that will be."

As a candidate, Anderson is the most solitary of politicians. Seldom does he solicit advice from traveling aides, or engage in the kind of strategy sessions most politicians relish.

He often seems more like a traveling scholar, delivering treatises on the great issues of the day than a candidate for president. Seldom does he use a five-word sentence when 30 words will do just as well.

Instead of saying the campaign is not over, he says it is not time to "deliver the pax vobiscum or benediction." He has adopted the Latin phrase no carborundum illitegitimatti as his unofficial campaign slogan. Loosely translated, it means "don't let the bastards get you down." When one policy adivser, who seldom hears him speak, listened to a particularly rambling address at the National Press Club this week, the adviser turned to a companion and said, "I'd like to kick him and wake him up. He's putting us all to sleep."

Anderson hasn't confided his inner thoughts about a third party effort to his closest advisers. Instead, they've learned of his thoughts from interviews and press conference statements. Understandably, they are reluctant to talk about the possibilities of a third party effort, claiming it would divert attention from his efforts to win the presidency.

"The key decision is not his," said one supporter in Connecticut, who is displeased with the way his national campaign has been managed. "It's the kind of team he puts together that's important. It has to be like the Boston Celtics. It has to be able to run, pass and shoot."

The implication is that his campaign team hasn't proved it can't.

Anderson's talk of a third party candidacy came as he campaigned through some of his areas of greatest strength in the Midwest and Northeast this week and he continued to be greeted by discouraging poll results.

His mood during the week was buoyant, almost exuberant at times. When a bearded young man came to his breakfast table this morning and after a long discussion said he wasn't sure he could vote for Anderson, the candidate replied, "Don't tell me you aren't going to vote for me after you've been under the blinding spell of my presence for 10 minutes."

The third party option provides a convenient answer to one of the most troubling aspects of his candidacy: What will it accomplish, particularly if he fares poorly on election day?

Anderson's answer is revealing.

"I don't think you ever, ever lose or that there is a debt to be inscribed on the political ledger of this country if you undertake as honestly and as effectively as you can to talk to the American people about the problems of our time," he said here Friday night. "If I can present, no matter how many people vote for me, a contrast between the old politics and what I think has to be the new politics of greater realism, who knows what seeds have been sown and what ideas may sprout?"

According to some political experts, a new third party could be fashioned out of Anderson supporters, "good government liberals," professionals disillusioned with both major parties and the kind of people who flocked to reform efforts led by Common Cause and Ralph Nader during the 1970s.

Anderson press secretary Tom Mathews, who has a direct mail business that raises money for a host of such groups and for liberal politicians, said today it would be technically possible to support a third party effort, although he doesn't necessarily advocate it. "These are a set of people with their own set of political dynamics," said Mathews. "They don't care about how many votes he gets. They are always ready to give if they believe in the cause. Their numbers may be small. And conventional politicians -- as Jimmy Carter has done -- may smear them. But they can bloody someone's nose . . . They're active. They're frustrated. And they have dough."