Mondale: America's 'Mr. Clean'; Mondale: Portrait of an American Politi cian, by Finlay Lewis. New York: Harper & Row. $12.95

Why is nobody watching Walter Mondale? Easy. It's a national election year in America and Fritz Mondale is not part of the top-of-the-ticket presidential sweepstakes.

Instead, it's the Carters and Kennedys and Reagans and Bushes and Bakers who are in the limelight. They arem running for president.

But should we be watching Walter Mondale? Probably. Because in the long run , a study of Jimmy Carter's vice-president can tell us something about the present state of politics in the US. And not only is the Minnesota minister's son second in line for the presidency, but many believe that the role he plays is the most influential of any "No. 2" man in American history.

President Carter himself has freely admitted: "Fritz speaks for me." And over the past three years-plus, he has given the vice-president key assignments -- both domestic and foreign -- and regularly included Mondale in the inner circle of presidential advisers.

Mondale is a highly talented, well-respected politician who has a penchant for bringing people together, resolving thorny social issues through compromise, and standing for "principle" while retaining personal and party loyalties.

This is what we learn from veteran newsman and Mondale watcher Finlay Lewis in his new profile of the vice-president. "Mondale: Portrait of an American Politician" is, for the most part, a highly complimentary sketch of Hubert Humphrey's pet protege, tracing the career of Mondale from precinct organizer to state attorney general to US Senator to vice-president.

Mondale the politician is portrayed as scrupulously honest ("If there ever was a Mr. Clean in American politics, it was Walter Frederick Mondale"), politically adept, personally convincing -- but perhaps lacking the drive and ambition to fight for the nation's highest office.

The last is the Mondale enigma which perplexed Jimmy Carter even while he was choosing the Minnesotan as a ballotmate in 1976. Why didm Fritz Mondale bow out of the presidential race four years ago after making an almost certain commitment to run? Lewis suggests alternatively that he was too pragmatic to buck the odds, more than a little afraid of losing, and really lacked the fundamental desire to be president. But Mr. Lewis unfortunately does little to solve the puzzle.

Vice-President Mondale is depicted as a complex man, sometimes puritanical, often aloof, occasionally short tempered, but generally humane, thoughtful, and sensitive to the plight of the less fortunate. His fight for "rights" -- for blacks, children, union workers, farm laborers -- during his Senate career fully established his credentials as a "liberal."

The Lewis book offers a well-written, sometimes insightful peek at a prominent American politician, and it may be a while before we get a more definitive biography. Then, too, in a presidential year -- when projecting political scenarios is fashionable -- it is not unreasonable to look ahead to 1984 when a Fritz Mondale could be serving his second terms as No. 2 to Jimmy Carter and gets the blessing from the Oval Office to run on his own for the presidency.

A decade ago, long-time political analyst TRB offered: "We think Mondale is of presidential caliber." But the real question is whether Mondale thinks Mondale is of presidential caliber. And if he does, is he willing to make the sacrifices -- and take the political risks -- that a run for the White House entails?

Lewis never tells us.

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