The process of decision for Democratic voters has shown roughly the same picture for months now: Walter Mondale holds a decided edge among the party's activists and power blocs. Each week the party coalesces a little more around the front-runner. John Glenn's chief hope all along has been that in a match-up with Ronald Reagan, the likely but not yet dead-certain GOP nominee, Mondale would show up as a loser. The message for Glenn in opinion surveys is equivocal. Polls do not say flatly that Mondale would lose to Reagan, or that Glenn would have a clear enough margin of superiority over Mondale. If the picture remains arguable, it looks like Mondale would be nominated.
The other contenders - George McGovern, Alan Cranston, Reubin Askew, Gary Hart, Ernest Hollings - would require some combination of events to propel their candidacies.
A Mondale win in Iowa, the caucus event that launched Jimmy Carter's l976 streak to the nomination, would be largely discounted as expected of the front-runner. Iowa Democrats are trying to move their primary up a week to Feb. 20. If Glenn wins in the New Hampshire primary (the next convention-delegate event, now set for March 6, but possibly to be reset for Feb. 28) and the overall national polls show Glenn strong against Reagan, there would be a significant turn in the campaign and a challenge to Mondale's supremacy.
The next big delegate day a week later, with 10 states voting and representing all four regions, could wrap up the nomination. In any event, the period for public appraisal of the presidential candidates is closer than the public may have believed.
What we don't know yet is whether Jesse Jackson will, after Hamlet-like pondering, try to coalesce the black vote around his candidacy. This would handicap Mondale. We are seeing more potential vice-presidential candidates come out for Mondale - New York's Mario Cuomo and Pat Moynihan in the East, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the West. Will the National Organization for Women join big labor and teachers and endorse Mondale?
The White House has reappraised the two leading Democratic contenders and finds them about equally tough in a projected race - Mondale leading a more energized Democratic electorate, Glenn with more midroad appeal, extending to conservative evangelical Christian voters Reagan has counted on.
What troubles us is the irony of a seemingly endless campaign that remains somehow remote, detached from the voting public. So far, when the candidates get together on one platform - as the Democrats did last week for a nuclear arms ''debate'' in Boston - little seems to click. It appears to take a mistake by one candidate or another to interrupt the vague process of appraisal and decide a candidate's fate.
Such debates should focus on current operative issues - strife in Lebanon, arms-talk strategy, tax hikes - Washington now faces, rather than blue-sky plans for the future.
Rooted in the present, Mr. Reagan as White House incumbent can give a clearer picture of a candidacy. There is still time for the Democrats to devise possibly a round robin of debates to reveal their candidates' wares for the fast-coming selection process.