St. Paul, Minn. — Walter Mondale launched his presidential campaign here Monday in the upper Midwest - where the prairie meets the North woods, and the Minnesota River joins the Mississippi as the mighty heartland river starts its southward flow.
For staying power, even frontrunners must reach down to their political roots.
Mr. Mondale made his official announcement in the St. Paul state house, where he began his public life as Minnesota attorney general in 1960. Mondale is the acknowledged Democratic frontrunner. He led his closest rival, Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, by 42 percent to 18 percent in a national survey of Democratic voters taken as 1983 began. He is well ahead of Senator Glenn in organization and fundraising.
But despite his four years as President Carter's vice-president, Mondale finds he is readily recognized but not well known. His years as an activist Minnesota senator (a protege of the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey), and the causes like education and civil rights that forged his political identity, have faded from public view.
''He realizes he has to start fresh, define who he is, and where he's from,'' says a Mondale campaign official, outlining the first phase of Mondale's 20 -month presidential trek. However, in his opening campaign speech, Mondale seems to have signaled that his liberal roots of yesterday will not define him today.
His opening campaign speech appealed to conservative as well as liberal values: ''Schools must teach again. Americans must work again. Convicted criminals must go to jail again.''
Every presidential candidate wants to be known as hailing from someplace - President Truman from Independence, Mo., for example. But for Mondale, what might be termed the origins issue remains a problem. The son of a Protestant minister, Mondale lived in small towns in southern Minnesota. After spending recent years in the nation's capital, the former vice-president and his wife have just bought a home in North Oaks, a wealthly suburb north of St. Paul that's very exclusive, very Republican, and very conservative.
''I can't tell you who the true Walter Mondale is - the liberal or the cautious pragmatist,'' says Thomas Scott, University of Minnesota political scientist. ''He can't run as a Humphrey liberal. He will appear somewhat more conservative on economic issues. He won't stick his neck out. He will appear much more moderate, more middle-of-the-road, than his senate record would suggest.''
Mondale outlined his initial campaign themes: a president must foster a greater sense of community - drawing people together - rather than act as a devisive force; trust in government must be restored; a president's strength domestically and internationally derives from the support of the people, so Mondale says he seeks a mandate, not just a victory, in 1984.
''We've had Vietnam; it's over. We've had Watergate; it's behind us. We've tried quick fixes; they don't work,'' Mondale said.
He stresses traditional American values, which ''don't need any updating.''
''When I look back on all the troubles my parents had - losing the farm, the Depression, sickness - what strikes me is how our beliefs pulled us through. We were rural people; we knew that hard work was the only way to make it,'' he said.
On economic issues, Mondale emphasized ''entrepreneurship,'' often a GOP theme. ''In the years ahead, everything will depend on economic growth: our jobs , our defense, our fight for social justice,'' he said. ''The heart of competitiveness must be a strong new national policy to strengthen entrepreneurship, small business, and free enterprise.''
On arms, Mondale said, ''We must stand by the ABM (anti-ballistic missile) treaty, resubmit the SALT (II) treaty, and negotiate a comprehensive test-ban treaty.''
Mondale mixed his appeals for ''stronger families'' and ''tougher discipline'' with more liberal themes like government remaining ''on the side of the vulnerable,'' continuing ''the long American march to broader liberties,'' and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
His campaign actually will begin in the South - Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee - in early March, acknowledging his attempt to balance his liberal past with the conservative era in which he's competing.