WHEN the earnest, fresh-faced kid arrived in Springfield in 1954 at age 26, he was known to most of us in the press who kept an eye on Illinois state government as ``Pauli'' Simon. This was not said in a slighting way. It was a friendly accolade given to a very young-looking and very warm personality. Soon Mr. Simon's fellow legislators were calling him ``Pauli'' or ``Little Pauli.'' Even the Republicans who opposed him - and the Chicago Democrats, who didn't look kindly on Simon's penchant for attacking governmental corruption - found they couldn't keep from liking this bright, personable fellow.
Simon, of course, had easy access with the press. He had, himself, been a newspaperman before moving into politics. As owner and crusading editor of a small downstate paper in Troy, Ill., Simon had been given national publicity for his battles against crime.
The crusader-against-crime reputation helped Simon immensely as a new legislator who easily could have become lost. Whenever the national media or the big Illinois papers wrote stories about corruption in state government, they frequently interviewed and quoted Simon. He was ``Mr. Clean'' before that description was ever applied to a public figure.
And Simon talked freely of the corruption in Springfield. In one article Simon charged that one-third of his colleagues routinely accepted bribes and other payoffs. I had interviews with Simon in which he talked about the large amount of ``boodling'' going on among his fellow legislators. ``Boodling'' was the word then in use in Springfield to describe a legislator who was taking money under the table from this or that source in return for supporting certain legislation.
Such accusations - never really denied by anyone - did get Simon in hot water with some of his associates in the legislature, particularly with those from Chicago who were part of the Richard Daley machine.
But Pauli Simon has always had this capacity to make friends of his enemies. So anyone who knew this very engaging fellow was not too surprised when in 1968 Simon became Mayor Daley's candidate for lieutenant governor. Simon won that election. Then Daley's organization slated Simon for governor in 1972 - an election which Simon lost because so many voters found his reconciliation with the Daley forces a bit too politically opportunistic.
Pauli Simon soon turned his attention to Washington, winning a congressional seat in 1974. He's been in Congress ever since. In 1984 he defeated Sen. Charles Percy in a campaign where the rhetoric that was expressed and the accusations that were exchanged did little to dignify the election process.
It was ironic that Mr. Percy had won his way to the Senate by defeating one of Simon's heroes, Paul Douglas. And now Simon was, in a sense, avenging this. The problem, however, with such observations is that they break down under close scrutiny. Before Percy challenged Mr. Douglas, the two had been good friends. And what made that Simon vs. Percy contest so sad to many people who knew them both was that - as they viewed it - here were two very decent fellows hacking away at each other.
And now ``Little Pauli'' Simon was running for president. As I sat next to him at lunch the other day, I looked for the differences and the growth in the man since he was that fresh-faced, eager-beaver kid of yesteryear.
There was the obvious: He was older, and with that age and experience had come great self-assurance. But Pauli had always had a lot of self-confidence.
The bow tie was the same. The voice, that deep, wonderful voice: that was the difference! I'm sure it had always been there. But it hadn't been so evident. He has learned that his voice is his chief asset as a campaigner.
Simon quite willingly admits that he is an old-time liberal. This means that he is taking a position that is going to be quite helpful to voters.
Simon is not one of these Democratic candidates who talks so much about cutting federal spending and balancing the budget that he sounds very much like a Republican conservative.
He does - to the despair of some liberals - support a balanced budget amendment. But his backing of an $8 billion jobs program, modeled after the old Works Progress Administration, is music to the ears of those who approve of the old-time liberal approach to governing.
Simon caused some head-shaking among the reporters he was talking to the other noon. Asked whether he thought the President could have gotten the Soviet leaders to the negotiating table had there been no massive Reagan-initiated arms buildup, Simon said, ``Yes.'' Indeed, his opinion was that the Soviets were ready to deal when Reagan came on board as President - and that Reagan had merely put off that opportunity. The buildup, he said, had nothing to do with the Soviet's desire to come to an arms-reduction agreement.
A newsman sitting at Simon's right, that highly-respected veteran of the New York Times, James Reston, says that he sees Simon as the ``sleeper'' in the presidential race. A gathering of nearly 40 reporters for this lunch - at a moment when the Gorbachev visit was engulfing Washington and draining news desks of their available people - indicated that among the media Simon now is being taken very seriously as a presidential candidate.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.