The 1984 Democratic campaign, according to Eugene McCarthy, lacks nouns - or, to be more precise, issues. ''Mondale says, 'I'm real and I'm ready.' Hart says, 'I'm new and different.' The campaign is being reduced to settling the question of who has the better adjectives,'' complains Mr. McCarthy at a breakfast for reporters.
His voice trails off into the distance, then suddenly reappears. ''I don't think,'' he concludes, ''(Hart or Mondale) can get elected.''
Eugene McCarthy, former Democratic senator from Minnesota and ex-presidential candidate, has a long history of challenging the precepts of his party. In 1968, he helped topple an incumbent Democratic president.
In 1980, he gave Ronald Reagan a lukewarm endorsement, in large part because he felt there was little chance Jimmy Carter could stop inflation.
This year, ''I don't think I'm going to endorse anybody,'' he says.
''I've been doing it since 1952 without much success. I endorsed myself twice , Adlai Stevenson twice. My only winner was Reagan.''
McCarthy admits he was ''hopeful'' about Gary Hart. But his voice trails off again as he says it, and his face looks even more impassive than usual.
Mr. Hart's economic ideas ''at least suggest that by the year 2000 we might begin to deal with the country's economic disorder,'' McCarthy says.
But he does not think much of Senator Hart's vaunted new ideas on defense, such as the use of smaller, less complicated weapons.
Hart, says McCarthy, is only challenging the Pentagon's tactics, not its underlying ''militarism.''
And in any case, Hart ''never had a chance,'' sighs McCarthy, ''other than all that press talk about 'gaining.' ''
Walter Mondale, on the other hand, draws harsh words from his fellow Minnesotan.
Mondale's beliefs, McCarthy says, have basically remained unchanged since before his days as vice-president.
''He is identified with every more or less mistaken thing the Democrats have done in the last 25 years,'' McCarthysays.
''It's very difficult for me to see Mondale talking to Chernenko,'' he says.
But the former vice-president pretty well has a lock on the nomination, concedes McCarthy. He predicts this might well lead to a splintered convention in San Francisco.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson's candidacy will inevitably result in a ''lot of disappointed black voters,'' says McCarthy. Hart supporters are also likely to feel ''alienated'' because of the way party rules have made things difficult for their man.
''I think the same things are going to happen (at the convention) that happened in '68,'' McCarthy says, ''without the violence.''
As to general advice he would give prospective presidential candidates, McCarthy says they must remember that a good driver is far more valuable than a press secretary. ''During any good campaign,'' he says, ''at least two press secretaries must be sacrificed to the press.''