Des Moines — Are campaign reform laws giving Walter Mondale a special advantage over his rivals in the 1984 Democratic primaries and caucuses? ''I'm still waiting for someone to do the story on what Mondale is really spending in this election,'' says Jeanne Shaheen, a campaign strategist for Gary Hart.
''Mondale talks about playing on a level table, but it's tilted here,'' complains Sam Vitali, state coordinator for John Glenn. ''I have to live with a spending cap. But labor's help has allowed Mondale to outspend us two or three times in this state.''
Such complaints by Mrs. Shaheen in New Hampshire and Mr. Vitali in Iowa have stung the front-running campaign of Walter Mondale. Perhaps even more important, they are calling into question the effectiveness of campaign spending laws passed in the post-Watergate years.
The Glenn camp, watching labor unions spend thousands of unregulated dollars for Mr. Mondale in the campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire, is hoping that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) will rule that some of the union spending in Mondale's behalf violates federal law.
Mondale's staff in Iowa says all this grumbling by the other candidates is just ''sour grapes,'' because they didn't get labor's backing. Mondale told reporters here: ''This is trash time. It's no coincidence that we are seeing all this debris thrown around a week before the election.''
Mondale added that Mr. Glenn had picked a poor state to challenge his integrity. ''I'm well known here, and one reason I'm doing well is that I'm trusted.''
Campaign law specialists, however, say the issue goes beyond the outcome of the current race. The extensive participation by labor in the primaries was not foreseen by those who wrote the campaign laws.
At the heart of the issue are the tight spending limits in key states - especially the all-important early states, New Hampshire and Iowa. Federal law permits a candidate to spend up to $404,000 during the New Hampshire primary campaign - not a dime more. In Iowa, the limit is precisely $684,537.60. However, under the law as now written, an organization such as the AFL-CIO can run expensive telephone banks, send out letters to union members, and coordinate its efforts with one of the candidates. None of the labor expenditure is counted against the limits of the candidate that labor is helping.
Before 1984, big labor had never become so deeply involved in the primary campaigns. But its activities here and in New Hampshire this year have campaign law specialists in Congress quite concerned. This latest experience could result in a fresh look at laws now on the books, according to these specialists.
One change being considered would be to remove the spending caps in specific states. Instead, the total ceiling of about $24 million nationwide would be the only limit, and candidates would be allowed to apportion this state-by-state in any way that would most benefit their campaigns.
Another possibility would be to count the spending by labor or other groups toward the spending limits of the candidate that they are helping. But such a change in the law would face tough political opposition on Capitol Hill, congressional aides say.
Mondale's own staff in Iowa helped to create all the excitement about labor's help for his campaign.
Mondale's state coordinator, Joe Trippi, told reporters that the campaign was using union telephones across the state at a bargain price of 10 cents a call. Mondale was also said to be leasing union halls for campaign offices across the state for $269 apiece, a price that the other campaigns said did not reflect the true value.
Under the law, labor can spend any amount it wants to support Mondale with its own members here in Iowa. But that help can only involve its own members. If union telephones, buildings, or other facilities are used to solicit nonunion support, then those must be sold or leased to the campaign at fair market price.
Mr. Vitali of the Glenn campaign saw the 10-cent-a-call figure in the newspapers and fumed. His own campaign must spend 20 to 50 cents a call to reach voters.
Further, most of the campaigns must put up hefty deposits just to get telephone lines installed. Glenn reportedly had to put up $1,400 just to get four lines installed in Davenport; Alan Cranston had to deposit $1,600 to have six lines opened in the same city; and Hart was required to put down $500 to have one line installed in Iowa City.
Mondale's campaign can just use union telephones that are already in place, and avoid the usual deposit.
Paul Jensen, Mondale's coordinator with the AFL-CIO, flew into Des Moines after the first flurry of press reports over free phones and 10-cent-per-call leasing. In an interview, he said Trippi's statement about the price Mondale was paying was simply wrong. The full price, whatever it turns out to be, will be paid.
''We have felt that it was incumbent on us to be very careful, very cautious, to stay within the limits of what the Federal Election Commission allows. I am absolutely sure we have been infinitely more cautious than any other political campaign going back to 1980 or 1976.''
Paying the ''fair market value'' for anything leased from the unions is a basic rule of the Mondale campaign, and any FEC investigation will surely find that has been the case, Mr. Jensen says.
Even if the FEC launches an investigation of Mondale spending in Iowa, there's little chance any official findings could come before the Feb. 20 caucuses. Many FEC studies take years to complete.