In a crowd of people waiting for Bill Bradley is a round-faced, friendly gent in a bow tie named George Scott. He identifies himself as the southwest New Hampshire chairman of the Bradley for President campaign, and during 10 or 15 minutes of waiting and milling he shares his political history.

"My first campaign was for--ah, what's his name? 1968, against Johnson. McCarthy! Eugene McCarthy," says Scott. "And all of 'em since then. I have a whole wall of losers' bumper stickers in my garage: McGovern, Kennedy. That guy, uh, Mondale. Hart. All of 'em."

We have met, in other words, one of the endangered species that once filled the skies of American politics, the passenger pigeon of civic life: the Liberal Democrat. These are the heirs of FDR whose vast habitat shrank and shrank in the 1970s and '80s until even a Democratic president would proclaim that "the age of big government is over."

It speaks volumes that Scott is here, on a crisp and sunny late autumn day, with his hand-painted sign that says "Bradley." It speaks volumes that Don Petterson, former U.S. ambassador to Sudan, waits for Bradley the following morning, on a sidewalk in Hanover, N.H. A semi-retired computer programmer drives one of the press vans and recalls the good old days campaigning for Robert F. Kennedy.

Bradley meets birds of this feather at every stop, and their enthusiasm conveys a regal and venerated distinction: He appears chosen to be the candidate of the messianic wing of the Democratic Party.

He meets the traditional requirements of the job--he's smart, a bit acerbic, slightly aloof and not quite a worldly candidate. He challenges voters to rise above, well, everything. Think Adlai E. Stevenson in the 1950s, who once was assured by a supporter that "all thinking people" would vote for him and answered: "That's not enough. I need a majority." Think Paul Tsongas in 1992, who often noted in his stump speech that "all of you are going to die."

For this durable constituency, it doesn't matter exactly what Bradley says--although his audiences get a gleam in their eyes when he declares that "big problems require big solutions." Indeed, specific programs are not really essential. What matters is who they perceive him to be.

"Bradley's his own man," says Scott.

"Character. Integrity. Honesty," says Petterson. "He's just a superior person."

"He has this maturity, this depth," says John Rauh, yet another of those Bradley supporters. Rauh is the nephew of the late Joe Rauh, for decades one of the leading New Hampshire liberals, and he has picked up his uncle's banner of reform. During three days in the state this week, Rauh was at Bradley's side all the way.

The support of Rauh and others like him has boosted Bradley into the lead in New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held Feb. 1. This is a sort of cultural Ground Zero of rectitudinous liberalism--you haven't fathomed just how many well-to-do Democratic retirees New York and Massachusetts produce until you have prowled the precincts of Exeter and Keene and Concord and Hanover.

Of course, there is another, equally long tradition--the one in which the rest of the country looks at New Hampshire's favorite Democrat and says, "No, thanks." But for now, one thing at a time.

Only a few months ago, the former basketball hero and Big Picture senator from New Jersey was a larking long-shot, the only Democrat who missed the message that Al Gore was officially unstoppable. But strong fund-raising and his burst here have turned Bradley into a contender, and now his campaign is struggling to keep up. New staff members were announced every day of the New Hampshire swing.

At the center of the glare, Bradley remains alpine in his cool remoteness. He watches from his great height with an air of mystery, his jaw working back and forth, in and out, as he sucks one Hall's Defender throat lozenge after another. He doesn't say much: On Wednesday morning, for instance, he strolled half a block along a thronged Hanover street and entered a popular breakfast spot, Lou's. "How's the breakfast?" he asked one diner. "Taste good?" he asked another.

Stan Rosenberg, a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School, greeted the Princeton hoops legend by saying, "I saw you play basketball when I was at Cornell. You killed us two straight years." Bradley just nodded.

He's at his best in front of a smallish crowd--a couple of hundred people. A group large enough that no one expects any intimacy, but small enough that his listeners can fall under the spell of his unmusical, slightly congested voice. Bradley is not really a glad-hander or a great speechmaker; he is a college professor, and he works best on the scale of a lecture hall. He says things most candidates couldn't get away with--for example, that the president's main job is to "give people a narrative," a story of the changes facing the country and each person's place in the tale.

And he is not a bad storyteller. Sentence for sentence, he doesn't sound like an orator, but now and then he slips into poetry. In Nashua yesterday, he had 150 people--most of them silver-haired liberals--spellbound as he spoke of his boyhood on the mighty Mississippi River, "the wind blowing through the cottonwoods . . . sediment scoured from half a continent . . . the limestone bluffs."

When Bradley told of a small child who explained to a teacher that he didn't have breakfast because "it wasn't my turn to eat today," there was a gasp from the audience. Pundits have called Bradley boring, but that's not quite right. He is reserved, laconic and possessed of an athlete's eternal self-assuredness. Raised to manhood amid the cheers of fans, he expects his audience to provide at least half the energy.

The old liberals certainly do.

There was an interesting moment in Nashua, after the town meeting. Bradley walked half a block to Alec's Shoes, a local institution where the owners have recently begun closing on Mondays so that store employees can have the day with their families.

"This is a great thing," Bradley said as he entered the store. In fact, he was so impressed he decided to buy a pair of black dress shoes to replace the pair he has owned for 25 years. (Bradley is casually contemptuous of clothes; he wore the same cranberry-red tie for two straight days in New Hampshire, including on national television.)

Off came the old shoe, size 13D. The salesman tried in vain to persuade Bradley to buy a fashionable cap-toe. "I want one with fewer holes," he grumped, fingering the laces.

A few feet away stood Chris Notides, 74, a Greek immigrant, a lifelong Democrat, a Bradley supporter--and as he watched he instantly made a psychic connection. "Stevenson!" he whispered urgently. The sight of a brainy, distant Democrat in his stocking feet recalled the defining image of Adlai Stevenson, photographed with his legs crossed and a gaping hole in the bottom of his plain black shoe.

The verdict: "He looks presidential."