Washington — The early struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination is evoking little more than ''ho-hums'' from the public. Mondale was way out in front. Now Glenn has caught him, according to the polls. But there's little excitement.
It's the kind of colorless field of candidates out of which a dark horse could emerge. At the moment the most likely come-from-behind possibility is Reubin Askew, former Florida governor whose glittering administration led a Harvard study to choose him as one of the 10 best governors of the century.
Could Askew be another Jimmy Carter? He himself likens his candidacy to that of John Kennedy in 1960. But he does point out that Carter had only about 3 percent support in the polls before the 1976 Iowa caucus. So Askew does see the parallel.
Askew's own strategy is to pick up a couple of delegates in the Iowa caucus and score well in, if not win, the ensuing New Hampshire primary. Then he sees a big victory on March 13 when Florida, Georgia, and Alabama elect 287 delegates - enough to give him the thrust necessary to go on and win the nomination.
That scenario sounds a lot like the way Carter - ''Jimmy Who?'' until the Iowa caucus - came from nowhere to win it all.
Askew's aspirations are finally being taken seriously by the news media. He drew as many reporters to a recent breakfast meeting as did John Glenn not long ago, and he responded with an exuberant performance. His remarks were laced with good humor. But he emerged as a battler. He scolded the media for looking only at the ''name-recognition'' polls which, he insisted, would not be relevant when the campaign heated up. And he commented strongly on a number of issues, sometimes taking on his Democratic opponents:
* Unlike most of the other candidates, especially Mondale, he is against the protectionist trend in the Democratic Party. He is for an ''open trading system'' with ''some adjustments.''
* Unlike others, he also opposes groups who are in favor of choice on abortion.
* He opposes seeking an AFL-CIO endorsement, as does Mondale. He told the union executive council that a ''labor endorsement in the primaries would be counterproductive for the general election.''
* He applies the principle of nonendorsement to any business or labor organization because ''in the end it might give the perception that I was so committed to them that I was not free to challenge them (as President).''
* He thinks the President is wrong on tuition tax credits for private schools: ''I believe that independent schools . . . do play a critical role in our educational process,'' he comments. ''But the President of the United States really has to be an advocate of building the educational system of this country.''
* He supports a strong defense but thinks the MX unnecessary: ''I don't think that it would impair the security of this country by not going forward with it. I'm quite prepared to take that issue to the American people.''
* On the budget: ''I think very strongly that we should get back to working toward a balanced budget. But I'm not going to make any promises - because we can't stand many more presidents who promise to balance the budget within a short period of time. But it worries me that there is no effort being made at this time to seriously attack those deficits . . . . Spending is the area that has been spared the most - and that's essentially in defense.''
Reporters, critiquing Askew afterward, agreed that he had showed them something and that here was a dark horse who just might come out of the pack and win. Said one, ''He's got a lot of fire - he just might catch on.''