''Am I up to 1 percent in the polls yet?'' Ernest F. Hollings chuckles as he says that. But there's a little sadness in his voice. And that's understandable.
Senator Hollings, who looks like a president, stands as erect as a general, and is probably the best platform speaker on the campaign trail, still hasn't made the breakthrough he seeks in his run for the White House.
After nearly a year of intensive campaigning, the South Carolina senator is:
* Still at 1 percent (or less) in the polls.
* Still the least known of the eight men running for the Democratic nomination (more than 60 percent of all people polled say they have never heard of him).
* Still not drawing the contributions he needs to fire up his campaign.
It's a serious problem, and he frankly says that he doesn't know what to do about it. He calls it ''the recognition gap.''
All this has earned Hollings the title ''the darkest of the dark horses.''
Now if you have read this far, you might be interested to know that Hollings doesn't like newspaper stories or TV reports that start off like this one. He calls it ''horse-race journalism'' - who's ahead, who's behind, what the polls say, and so forth. What does all that have to do with electing a president? he asks. As he told one interviewer:
''(The voter) can't find out anything about the candidates, their voting records, and what they're espousing. All you can really find out is, who's your advance man, who's your pollster, how much money have you received, do you come from the South, do you have a dialect, and all that kind of nonsense.''
Hollings, in fact, does have positions set out in fine detail on all the major issues. Those positions define him as a pragmatic middle-of-the-roader - neither clearly liberal nor clearly conservative.
In recent years, Washington has swarmed with new ideas on the economy, on defense, on long-range industrial policy, and other issues. Much of the new thinking has come from the right - the ''neoconservatives'' - as well as the left - the ''neoliberals.'' Asked where he falls, Hollings, with his characteristic quick wit, responds that he is a ''neomoderate.''
Where does a ''neomoderate'' stand?
If there is one central theme that runs through Senator Hollings's positions, it is that American policy must be based on ''austerity and common sense.'' He demands that sacrifice be shared by all elements of American society - from the Pentagon to social security recipients, from business to labor.
Take defense, for example. Hollings has a reputation on Capitol Hill (where he has been a senator since 1966) as a military hawk. But he's a hawk who wants to sink his talons into what he sees as the soft flab in the Pentagon's budget.
There are two major problems with the current Reagan defense budget, Hollings suggests.
First, it is rising too fast. It jumped $37 billion in 1981, he notes, another $34 billion in 1982, and another $30 billion in 1983. The Pentagon cannot wisely spend that much new money every year, he argues. Instead, the US should move its defense budget up at a prudent, steady, manageable pace that holds together the national consensus that America needs a stronger defense.
Second, a tougher look needs to be taken at certain costly items. Hollings, a seven-times-decorated US Army officer in World War II, observes that during that conflict, a B-17 Flying Fortress cost $97,000. Now a B-1 ''costs $410 million.'' The situation is out of hand, Hollings argues. Some tough choices have to be made, because the US Treasury cannot afford everything the Pentagon has on its wish list.
''There's just not that much money in the world.''
Part of the Pentagon's problem, he says, is that too little talent is devoted to problems of managing money and buying weapons. Recently, 69 generals in the Pentagon were promoted, and ''only one was in procurement. It's the 'dunderbuns' who end up in procurement.'' That's why the Defense Department takes 17 years to develop a new weapon like the M-1 tank, he says.
It is economic issues, however, which really stir the senator. He says he thinks Ronald Reagan is wrong on the economy. But he also thinks the Democratic Party is wrong today, and has been wrong for a long time. He calls the economy the party's ''Achilles' heel.'' In fact, he says the economy is one major reason that Republicans have been so successful since World War II in controlling the White House.
Walter Mondale typifies the reasons that Democrats lose presidential elections, Hollings says.
''Here we've got 'Fritz' Mondale, running around to all the big power blocs of the Democratic Party, saying, 'I'm going to take care of you,' 'I promise you this,' 'I promise you that.' 'Don't worry, I'm not going to do anything to hurt you.'
''The voters aren't stupid. They know that a politician who goes around promising everything to everybody is not going to end $200 billion deficits.''
Hollings proposes a four-part economic policy. It is a policy that avoids some of the fancy new phrases like ''reindustrialization'' and concentrates on the basics like spending, taxes, and deficits. Briefly stated, he supports:
A budget freeze. He would halt or slow the growth of most domestic spending, ''except for the most needy, who have suffered enough already.'' He would reduce the growth of entitlements like social security to 3 percent a year, and would hold defense growth to a similar 3 percent limit. ''This plan would require a fair sacrifice across the board, by Democratic interest groups as well as Republican.''
Rebuilding education. The most important natural resource any nation has today is people, he says. ''Look at Japan. Japan doesn't have tremendous natural resources. Yet it has outperformed us economically. Why? (Because of their) educational system. They have built up their stock of 'human capital.' We must raise the base pay of teachers, while demanding a professional level of competence in return.''
Help for foreign trade. The most important aspect of boosting US sales abroad is to reverse policies that are causing the dollar to be overvalued. The overvalued dollar is like a heavy tax on US exports. The US should also get tough with nations that exclude its exports.
Change attitudes. The adversary relationship among business, labor, and government needs to be tamed. All three must work together to boost US jobs and industrial strength. Hollings has been upset, for example, with recent developments in the auto industry. There the government imposed quotas to protect US automakers. But instead of taking advantage of this slowdown in Japanese imports, business leaders kept prices, profits, and executive bonuses too high. Labor used those high profits as an excuse to increase their wage demands. ''They're back to feathering their own nests, not getting ready to compete,'' Hollings grumbles.
Will Democrats buy such straight talk? So far, Hollings has received an interested and friendly reception in areas where he has been able to spend time, such as the Maine caucuses this fall.
His hope now is that he can score especially well in New Hampshire, where many of the voters have shown they are favorably inclined toward moderate Southerners. New Hampshire is small enough that even a candidate with limited finances like Hollings has a fighting chance to pull off a major surprise.