GOOSE LAKE, IOWA -- Terry Michael, press secretary to Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), waved a folded newspaper high in the air as Simon's traveling entourage swept into the Goose Lake Tap, the biggest tavern in this crossroads town of 272. "Let the Register decide. Let the Register decide it all," Michael shouted.

The newspaper Michael waved was the Des Moines Register, which in its Sunday edition endorsed Simon as "the best nominee for Democratic Party."

The editorial was a press secretary's dream. It called Simon "a man of decent instincts who sticks by them" and said his "lifelong interest matches the needs of the times."

It was the first piece of good news Simon has had in weeks, and the campaign milked it for all it was worth. Quick plans were made to produce a television ad featuring the endorsement, and to leaflet the state with copies of the editorial. Volunteers began inserting more copies in a mailing going to 25,000 Simon supporters.

"Time for you to start writing the Simon comeback story," Michael whispered to a reporter.

It may or may not be too late for a comeback by Simon, who began to slip in Iowa polls as soon as Gary Hart reentered the Democratic presidential race last month. Simon has never quite recovered.

But the editorial seemed to pump new life into the candidate. Simon, a Lutheran minister's son, came to this rural tavern for a pancake breakfast early Sunday (after church, of course) looking like a reborn politician. There was a new confidence in his voice, a fresh crispness to his speech.

"This election is not about fancy television commercials, not even about election speeches. In this election we ought to be looking for three factors -- consistency, judgment and trust," Simon told the crowd of about 200 Democratic Party regulars. "Consistency is not just what we say today about where we stand. But where we have been through the years."

He continued, his arms punching at the air like an overly wound-up toy soldier's: "I have a pretty consistent record for fighting for people who need help in our society. That's where I've been for 30 years. That's where I am today. That's where I'll be tomorrow, a year from now, . . . five years from now. There's no question where I stand."

This no-frills message is supposed to be a slap at Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who has displaced Simon and Hart as the Democratic front-runner in this crucial state. "There is no question about Gephardt being the Olympic champ on the inconsistency side," Simon said in an interview later.

But Simon did not mention Gephardt by name in his speech here, and the crowd barely noticed his veiled criticism.

Simon, a first-term senator, has an innate reluctance to say anything bad about an opponent. This has put him in a continuing tug-of-war with his more aggressive advisers ever since Gephardt began to move up in Iowa polls almost three weeks ago.

At one point about 10 days ago, Simon said his campaign strategists gave him some television scripts "that were negative, and I vetoed them . . . . My feeling was it wasn't the right way to go."

About the same time aides told reporters Simon was about to launch an assault on inconsistencies in Gephardt's record. Simon made a few critical remarks about the Missouri Democrat, but there was no assault.

"I could have done more. I could have been tougher, no question about it," Simon said. "But you have to follow your instincts. You've got to be yourself . . . . and I basically don't like negative campaigning."

Meanwhile, Gephardt has hurt Simon badly in his rural base. Goose Lake and surrounding Clinton County should be natural Simon country.

The county is separated from Simon's home state of Illinois only by the Mississippi River, and much of its television news is from Illinois.

But Democratic county chairman Jim Judge, a Simon supporter, said the race "is a three-way toss-up here between Simon, Gephardt and Dukakis" with only a week to go before the precinct caucuses.

Dale Evans, a Gephardt organizer here, said Gephardt had only 17 identifiable supporters in the county when he arrived Jan. 5, and he was told, "Don't expect much here." Evans said, "Our latest count was 473, and I expect 630 by caucus night, which would give me enough to carry the county."

Large and enthusiastic crowds greeted Simon in four other Mississippi River counties over the weekend. But at almost every stop, local Simon leaders predicted close races.

"We've got our people, and they've got theirs. I think psychology will play a big role in this last week. People want to go with a winner," said Mike Edwards, the Simon county coordinator in Burlington.