Walter Mondale has largely cast himself as the Democratic establishment candidate. But it's still early in the presidential season. Mr. Mondale, like his rivals, has yet really to introduce himself to the voters. And the voters themselves have yet to work out where they feel both the Democrats and the Republicans come out in balancing the public's fundamental 1984 political equations such as the dual longing for strength and peace.
As the ''pre-campaign'' campaign year comes to a close, however, former Vice-President Mondale's progress should be noted. He has put together an almost unbroken string of endorsements - from big labor (the AFL-CIO and other unions), educators (the National Education Association), and key political leaders, black and white, across the nation. The latest on his bandwagon are the National Organization of Women and the Alabama Democratic Conference, the latter an important Southern black political unit.
Mondale leads his seven competitors in campaign funds, in organization, in the polls among Democrats overall, and in the first critical delegate states (Iowa and New Hampshire) as well as in presidential campaigning experience generally.
So Mondale looks as though he will come out of 1983 about where a former vice-president would have to come out if he weren't to look vulnerable. At this point, however, he's still a former vice-president and the out party's front-runner, seeking to challenge an incumbent President. That is to say, Mondale's on track. But he's still short of what the next major tests can offer him, the actual delegate-contest victory of sufficient proportions, plus a harmonious ratification by the party itself at next August's San Francisco convention.
As Edmund Muskie found in 1972, a heavy cushion of endorsements cannot save a front-runner from a crash in the cold, raw early primary weather.
For Mondale, 1983 has been a year marked by caution, consolidating gains inch by inch, as if hoping that sometime next spring his candidacy can relax and blossom into a more popular, imagination-winning dimension.
This could be late. The Democratic contest has settled into largely a two-man affair, Mondale and John Glenn, with Jesse Jackson challenging for the black vote, Alan Cranston for the women's and peace votes, Ernest Hollings for the Southern vote, and George McGovern for the liberal vote.
What's missing in this lineup is an heir to what some Democrats call the Henry Jackson vote, or the Hubert Humphrey vote - that is, a candidate who combines leanings for a strong defense and a government commitment on social issues. This group, who often call themselves ''Humphrey Democrats'' (United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick for one), still find no strong attachment to any of the current contenders. That includes Mr. Mondale, who outside Minnesota makes less of his years as a Humphrey protege. Former Democratic National Party chairman Robert Strauss warns that no candidate - Republican or Democrat - can afford to ignore the mood of the country, which he sees embodied in the Jackson-Humphrey tradition.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart makes the point another way. The public is working through two contrasting goals. ''They want to rebuild the nation's prestige in the world, the message out of 1980,'' Hart says. Reagan has delivered on that, the public seems to feel. ''On the other hand, the public is looking for peace in the world. They're trying to work out that balance. If they perceive the Democrats' view toward national defense as strong enough and better on arms control, the Democrats win the balance fight. If the President gets some kind of agreement and the Democrats are perceived as weak on defense, he wins the fight.''
So it's early. The party establishment knows Walter Mondale, but the public doesn't. And the public itself is a long way from having made up its own mind about the criteria for the election.