It was almost like the heady days of his presidential campaigns. Hundreds of reporters and cameras camped out on the front lawn of the gracious Alabama Governor's Mansion in Montgomery. It was 1984, the Democratic presidential primaries were in full swing, and the candidates had come to pay their very public respects to a southern institution, Gov. George C. Wallace.

Wallace was in a wheelchair that March day. His voice was weak, his hair too thin to stay combed in the light breeze. He mumbled a few words -- full of genuine concern to anyone who knew the governor -- about how he hoped that day's visiting candidate, Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), wouldn't get shot on the way to the Democratic National Convention.

Now the governor of Alabama is fading away, too ill to wage another campaign. The bullets that paralyzed him from the waist down at the height of his popularity in 1972 have taken their toll.

George Corley Wallace won't run again.

Even after the assassination attempt in a Laurel, Md., shopping center in 1972, Wallace kept campaigning. For the governor, running for office was what he did. He never liked to govern. Billy Joe Camp -- now a candidate to succeed Wallace -- and other aides could handle that. Wallace liked to campaign. No one could match him.

Scrappy, strident, the self-proclaimed champion of "the little guy," Wallace was never so successful as he was in 1972, his third campaign for the presidency. He was 52 then and the nation, it seemed, had grown used to the little Alabamian. He was a demagogue. He was a segregationist. He was also something more. He knew his crowds and they knew him. With Wallace, the communion was complete.

In the end, of course, whenever he ventured beyond Alabama he lost. In 1968, the crusader for "law and order," running as a third-party presidential candidate, wound up with nearly 10 million votes -- 13.5 percent -- far more than anyone suspected possible. But he still won only 45 electoral votes, all from Dixie. Wallace said he had wanted to play power broker, to deny rivals Richard M. Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey a majority in the electoral college, and he had failed.

In truth, Wallace, a child of the South, wanted respectability more. But it took five shots fired at him and numerous wounds to gain him the acceptance he prized most: VIPs coming in steady procession to visit "the little booger" from Alabama.

It didn't start out that way. Derided again in 1972 as he launched his new campaign, this time as a Democrat, Wallace found himself snubbed by party officials, passed over for rooms at the upcoming national convention, denounced by Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) as representing "the worst instincts of which human beings are capable."

Wallace made them sit up and take notice anyway. His stunning victory in the Florida primary in March led to a spate of articles about the "new populism" Wallace had tapped, along with a spreading rash of distaste for the desegregation-by-busing that he had denounced. It was a far shrewder campaign than he had mounted before. This time he was asking for pure protest, not a ticket to the White House. He just wanted to "Send Them a Message."

To those who demanded to know whether he was still a segregationist, Wallace spoke wistfully of the old days that he acknowledged were gone forever and roguishly suggested that the press "just say that 'Governor Wallace is pussyfootin' on the subject . . . . That's right, 'pussyfootin.' "

Hundreds of thousands of Wallaceites saw it as code for the segregationism they thought he still embodied, but countless others did not. Neither, by his own account, did Wallace. There were plenty of other items of discontent to keep him going. "I is a multiple-issue candidate," he announced.

And he was. In a real sense, he was a harbinger of Ronald Reagan. America's "real majority," the white, middle-class legions to whom Wallace appealed, had a far longer list of grievances about their lot in life. They saw crime in the streets, tax bills in their mailboxes, bureaucrats in their hair, government programs that weren't working, and politicians all the while reading selfishness and bigotry into their every complaint.

Wallace, to be sure, was never one to blame them for that. In the more distant past, he had been a single-minded segregationist. But once, as a young Alabama legislator, he had been regarded as a flaming liberal, "the No. 1 Do-Gooder in the legislature," as one Alabama journalist put it.

Born in Clio, Ala., in 1919, Wallace knew what it was to be poor. "I lived in a frame house with no indoor plumbing," he once recalled in a campaign speech, in between denunciations of welfare-loafers. "I didn't have any lamplight. We had to draw water. I couldn't get a one-dollar cowboy suit out of Sears Roebuck because we didn't have the dollar. So I know what it was to be poor."

But to Wallace, his childhood was a storybook time, the best he ever had. Every detail was planted in his memory, from the POJ-213-Sorghum that he planted as a 4-H youth to the rows of cotton seeds he plowed on the family farm in the '30s. It was as if he expected people to remember that his playmates were black youths and that the family had an old, black handyman named Carlton McKinnis with full authority from Wallace's mother to switch her sons when they got out of line.

In his first inaugural address as governor on Jan. 14, 1963, Wallace did, of course, vow: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever." But Wallace never seemed to understand why he should be called a bigot for that. It was almost as if he expected people to see how transparent he was.

"Yeah, ole Carlton, we loved him," Wallace was quoted as saying in Marshall Frady's 1968 biography. "All his sisters and chillun down there been told I'm, anti-nigguh now. Yeah. But I can still see old Carlton when we'd bring him stuff to eat. We gave him money and looked after him until he died. It made us mighty sad when he was gone."

By age 13, Wallace was politicking, knocking on doors in Clio for a candidate for secretary of state. He put himself through college with a succession of odd jobs, was graduated from law school in 1942, flat broke, and joined the Army Air Corps during World War II. He became a flight engineer in a B29, but he never did like to fly. Mustered out on the West Coast in late 1945, he reportedly insisted on making his way back to Alabama by train. Reporters who covered his presidential forays remember him nervously chewing a dead cigar and peering out the windows of his plane, "Pseudo II" -- "Pseudo I" had been retired, perhaps to the Smithsonian -- and watching the flames belch out of the engines.

By 1947, he was a member of the Alabama legislature, earning a liberal reputation. Wallace was elected a Barbour County judge in 1952, then in 1958 made a run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against John E. Patterson, an ardent segregationist who welcomed the support of even the Ku Klux Klan. Wallace balked at that, professing his distaste of the Klan, and found himself embraced, as a consequence, by the NAACP.

He lost the race by 65,000 votes. Not long afterward, he told friends that Patterson had simply "out-segged" him (some claim he said "out-nigguhed"). Whatever the phrase, Wallace vowed it would not happen again.

The little judge was as good as his word. He won election as governor in 1962 with bristling vows to stand in the schoolhouse door to bar desegregation. He did just that at the University of Alabama in 1963 in a gaudy performance that was peacefully concluded when President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard.

The national adventures began shortly thereafter. College campuses wanted a look at the hobgoblin from Dixie and Wallace obliged. Along the way, he picked up some lines that lasted for years. Harvard: "That was a good trip. I got back alive." A television panel interview in Oregon: " . . . We have three commentators and because they comb their hair nice and they wear good clothes and they have an authoritative-sounding voice, they know all about the solutions of the problems that face us . . . . And finally, it got hot and heavy and one of them said, 'Well, governor, you sound like you're the smartest man in the country.' And I said, 'No sir, I'm not the smartest man in the country. And I'm not the smartest man in Oregon. And I'm not the smartest man in Alabama. But I'm the smartest man on this television show here.' And frankly, that wasn't saying much for me."

The 1968 Wallace campaign was a remarkable chapter in American politics, a third-party excursion atop a faction-ridden contraption called the American Independent Party. Despite the problems, Wallace scrambled onto the ballots of all 50 states, a feat that demanded the certified signatures of nearly 3 million voters. There had never been a campaign quite like it, although in 1972, there was another.

Through them both, Wallace craved crowds. Silence bothered him. So did the press corps' habit of leaving tape recorders near the speaker's platform up front, to catch the governor's speech, and then hurrying to the back of the hall with their notebooks "to cover the fights."

The 1972 campaign was more subdued, but the discontent Wallace had tapped, with taxes and school busing, foreign aid and "false liberalism," was still there. The candidate himself, to be sure, remained full of flaws: long on complaints and short on solutions. But millions of Americans were still spoiling to "Send Them a Message." With his twin victories in Maryland and Michigan the day after he was shot, Wallace had not only won more Democratic primaries than any other contender at that point, but he also had collected the most popular votes, nearly 3.3 million.

The office of the presidency always awed Wallace. During his campaigns, he just never bothered to think that far ahead. The votes he picked up were ends in themselves, prizes to be savored like a little boy's playthings. The fun was in the collecting.

And now retirement. It won't come easy for George Wallace.