Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina is making all the obligatory stops on the 1984 Democratic presidential circuit, wooing blacks, the aged, the poor and the struggling middle class with an unconventional promise of what he will do for their cherished social programs:


In fact, a total freeze on all spending. Right across the board.

"No, the Social Security fella would not get his increase," he tells the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, whose members learned their gospel in the Great Society.

"And the rich fella would not get his tax cut. And the senator would not get his pay increase. We all have to sacrifice--right across the board."

"Hold back on discretionary spending," he tells a conference of mayors, who worship at the altar of federal largess. "Hold back on the increases in entitlement spending. Hold back on the increases in defense spending. And hold back on the increases in tax spending."

So goes the apparently quixotic presidential candidacy of the junior senator from South Carolina. Fritz Hollings is one of at least a half dozen Democrats running for their party's presidential nomination.

He brings a fresh approach to national problems that he says he feels is more in tune with the political mood and realities, but he also carries some political baggage. He is a southerner in the post-Carter age, and he has been plagued by bad staff work in his campaign travels last year.

In a recent poll of Democrats by the consulting firm of Penn-Schoen, Hollings finished last; he was the presidential choice of just 1 percent. It just might be that he winds up winning more converts to his cause than support to his candidacy.

He will be surprised to learn, for example, that one who supports his call for a big freeze is Rep. Morris K. Udall, the liberal from Arizona who is considering making another run for the Democratic presidential nomination himself.

"I like it," Udall says of the Hollings freeze plan. "I think the American people would like a call to duty . . . . They would like a president who brings a little blood, sweat, and tears."

Hollings is quick to blossom into the full flower of his oratory, in a freewheeling stream of political consciousness that is long on hominy and short on party harmony. As when he told that black caucus gathering at Hilton Head, S.C.:

"When we Democrats are in, we try to spend ourselves into prosperity, and run up high deficits. Then the Republicans come in and they try to tax-cut us into prosperity. Where does this crowd in Washington all of a sudden get moved about the cracks in the roads and the bridges? It's monkey see, monkey do. New Ideas, New Ideas. Now it's eeenn-fra-structure! Eeen-fra-structure! . . .Well, what about the human eeen-fra-structure?" The issue before the American people is economic survival!"

When he is done, his audiences stand and applaud. And then they tell reporters that, while they don't mean to say they are actually going to vote for Fritz Hollings for president, they did like what they heard.

Hollings will be surprised to learn of Udall's support for the freeze idea, largely because of the underwhelming response of the Democratic Party to his proposal when he first made it, months ago, as the first prospective candidate from the party to grapple with the choices and answer the hard question: how will we pay for it?

Pay for it by doing without, Hollings says. Do without that third year of the Reagan tax cut. Do without the plan to "index" tax rates to prevent de facto tax increases caused by inflation and "bracket creep."

Do without the cost of living increases on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and federal pay raises for one year. And do without those huge Reagan increases in defense spending, reducing the increases to just 3 percent a year.

"The president told us to put up or shut up," Hollings recalls. "So I put up. And all that happened was I got the president and Tip O'Neill to agree--they both told me to shut up."

Instead, Hollings geared up and began to run for president. But the way he and his staff have gone about it so far has largely left party activists wondering if Hollings' candidacy is for real.

Consider Philadelphia, scene of the party's 1982 midterm conference, where the presidential hopefuls spoke and where Hollings' performance ranged somewhere between bad and bizarre.

First he deliberately withheld the text of his address from the press prior to his speaking--to build suspense, aides say. It was a mistake, they now all agree, because by the time he spoke most of the evening news television coverage of the day already had been planned.

Then there was the speech. It began with a joke about how his campaign theme song could be "The Impossible Dream."

As Hollings thundered on, even his closest advisers in the hall concede they could not understand what their boss was saying, as he fell victim to poor acoustics and his South Carolina drawl. It was, the senator's associates acknowledge, a disaster.

Totally lost on that crowd and most of the reporters was the fact that the speech was most unconventional. It was a scolding, really.

"My fellow Democrats, our party is much like the little girl with the curl in her forehead. When we are good, we are very, very good. But when we are bad, we are horrid . . . .

"The achilles heel of the Democratic Party is managing the economy. We had every opportunity last year and this year to change this perception. And we lost the opportunity. We hid behind the issue of Social Security, which Democrats couldn't lose if they had to, and missed the chance to expose Reaganomics."

Throughout the rest of the year, Hollings' staff work unfortunately was of a piece with that Philadelphia speech. As did the others who are seeking the presidency, Hollings traveled extensively in behalf of Democratic candidates nationally, and of course his own candidacy as well.

But he and his staff managed to get minimal impact out of their efforts. For unlike the other aspirants, Hollings was unable to provide representatives of the news media--and even Democratic National Committee officials--with advance word of his schedule.

"I wanted to be flexible," Hollings explains. The result: he got far less press attention than he might have on several occasions.

The Hollings camp is pleased with at least one facet of its early staff work--"Our computer," says Billy Keyserling, the soon-to-be-designated campaign manager of the Hollings for President organization. "It's a whole management system we've built. Anyone who's touched him is in the machine," says Keyserling, who is the nephew of Leon Keyserling, an economic adviser to President Truman.

Not so. In fact, on many occasions, the names of well-wishers encountered on the road--a truly valuable political commodity--were never taken because Hollings preferred to travel without an aide (often with his wife, Rita Liddy, who is known as "Peatsy" and is considered a close and able adviser to her husband).

In Los Angeles, for instance, a number of city officials came up to Hollings after his speech to say that they were impressed and wanted to get to know him better. They were allowed to leave before their names could be taken for further contacts and recruiting.

"We made some mistakes," concedes Keyserling. "You'll see that they are being corrected starting in 1983. We will have an aide traveling with him at all times now."

Hollings always has tried to avoid political labels. He is a defense hawk who opposed the SALT II treaty to limit nuclear weapons, then turned around and persuasively led the fight that killed Reagan's Dense Pack plan for deployment of the MX missile.

Considered fiscally conservative, Hollings teamed up early with former senator George McGovern (D-S.D.) in crusading for food and nutrition spending programs, and he is still emotional about it.

"If we take that scorn of society--the unwed expectant mother who cannot identify the father of her child and doesn't even care--and then deny her food stamps, that is wrong," he says. "We must break that cycle. We must say that we are doing it because we cannot help that mother's generation, but we must help that little child. Do that, and by the time he is 5 years of age, why, I got me a little child that'll compete!"

As governor of South Carolina, Hollings refused entreaties of segregationists to fight to the end and worked to persuade his home state that the legal course had been run, the law must be obeyed. He also was the first southern governor to champion John F. Kennedy for president in 1960.

But he also single-handedly filibustered the late Nelson A. Rockefeller's civil rights amendment at the 1962 governors' conference.

"We had an unwritten rule" against that sort of amendment, Hollings says. "I was really doing it for the good of the Order, to get us off Nelson's nonsense."

Hollings is also blunt to the point of being impolitic when discussing his Democratic colleagues.

"Kennedy was buying millions of dollars of television ads to try to change his image," he says. "And former vice president Walter F. Mondale is trying to divorce himself from Carter to change his image. Social issues--I think that's their weakness. They don't have the credibility and they somehow can't see it.

Hollings hopes that the southern base will be his. Sen. John H. Glenn of Ohio, he says, is his chief competition in the region. "But I have got to prove my acceptability in the North too, like in New Hampshire," Hollings says.

He adds: "It's a good thing that we Democrats didn't win the Senate back in 1982. Because the Democrats would have gotten the wrong message. They would have been dealing out the money--'Where's my CETA?' 'Where's my Trade Adjustment Act?' And Reagan would have been on Easy Street and he'd have chased us all out in '84."

So it is that some view Hollings as a sort of loose political cannon but that is not quite correct: it is just that he runs with his own political gyroscope. But that, plus the unevenness of his early presidential effort has left party professionals asking if he is serious, if he is not really positioning himself for the vice presidential nomination.

Over cocktails, the question arises once again. A Democratic ticket featuring a northern liberal such as Mondale and a southerner such as Hollings could be a winner, observes one of the black caucus legislators. "How about a Fritz and Fritz ticket?" he asks. "Would you be willing to accept that?"

Hollings pauses, winces, then responds.

"Yes, I could accept that. The only question is whether Mondale would be willing to be vice president for four more years."