Some veteran political observers were discussing the year ahead in a private social setting. They were saying all the usual things - that Reagan ''would be tough to beat,'' that ''the race was far too long,'' and that ''Mondale may have it wrapped up already.''
Then someone spoke up and said, ''What the Democrats really need is a fresh face.'' There was a little laughter from the others. Someone pointed out that all the current candidates consider themselves ''fresh faces,'' in terms of seeking the presidency for the first time. Others seemed to agree.
''Well,'' this same observer continued, ''I think the Democrats need something more than the usual run of fresh faces. Someone like an Eisenhower when he first moved into politics. Or like a Wendell Willkie.''
Before long, others in the group warmed up to the idea that someone else was needed if the Democrats were going to be able to overcome the formidable Mr. Reagan - someone who would be completely new and whose presence on the ticket would give the Democrats an exciting, personable candidate who might be able to match the pleasant, winning personality of the President.
The group's consensus then became this: Reagan the person would be the issue in this race, more so than issues, and the Democrats would need someone who could personally electrify the electorate if they would have a chance of overcoming Mr. Reagan.
The thesis that something more, something new, something exciting is needed in the way of a candidate is most persuasive. It is late for something like that to happen. But not too late.
Who might fill the bill? Why not Lee Iacocca, the dynamic head of Chrysler? Perhaps he's a Republican. But Willkie had been a Democrat, and not too long before he jumped into the campaign. That was part of his appeal and helped him put up a respectable battle against the unbeatable FDR.
Reagan, too, had been a Democrat, and a very liberal one to boot. He liked to remind blue-collar workers of this during the 1980 campaign.
No one could say that Iacocca wouldn't be exciting. And he's proved very definitely that he could get a most difficult job done, that of putting Chrysler back on its feet again. Further, Iacocca has shown tremendous skill in dealing with labor leaders as well as the captains of industry and top politicians.
More than anything else, Iacocca has become well known publicly. His TV spot, in which he did such a masterful job of selling Chrysler, has made him someone who is readily identified in millions of households.
It looks like Walter Mondale will get the nomination - unless some newcomer catches the eye of the public. But as a frontrunner, he is not all that impressive.
The national polls now show Mondale about even with Reagan. New GOP polls show Reagan slightly ahead. A casual observer might say, ''That looks pretty good for Mondale.'' Not at all.
This is a time when the public hasn't focused in on a challenger and where he stands on the issues. Thus, he normally gets a much better rating from the voters than when, later on, they become more aware of things he is saying and of positions he has taken, or intends to take.
Anyway, there does seem to be a gaping hole among the big field of Democratic candidates, whose efforts, thus far, have failed to get much more than a yawn out of the rank-and-file voters - except for Jesse Jackson, who seems to be more of a spoiler than an ultimate winner. There does, indeed, appear to be room for a newcomer whose qualifications as presidential material are most obvious to break upon the scene. Beyond Iacocca? There are doubtless others who would come closer to arousing some excitement than those now in the race. New York's Governor Cuomo, for one, would be coming out of government. But he would be a newcomer to most Americans. And he is a most colorful, impressive fellow. He's said to be looking at 1988 for a try at the presidency. But why not 1984?
Ted Kennedy is still ''Mr. Excitement'' to millions of Americans. He, of course, has his own special problems with the voters at large. But, despite these political deficits, he could probably still grab the nomination away from Mondale and Glenn and company. So could someone else who would have some of the electricity Kennedy generates - without Kennedy's load of negatives.