Walter Mondale, at least tactically, did the right thing in asking union organizations to stop the flow of funds to special ''delegate'' committees pledged to his support.
The funds, reportedly some $300,000, poured in to 130 committees ostensibly set up to finance the activities of delegates pledged to Mondale. Such committees are legal. The degree of coordination between the candidate's own campaign and the delegate committees' activities is not so clear. The Federal Election Commission has been asked to look at the Mondale delegate committee coordination. What troubles Mondale's competitors, and critics of the current campaign finance system, is that labor organization political-action committees may be using the delegate committees as a ruse to get around the $5,000 limit on PAC contributions to a candidate's campaign.
Motives in the current attack on Mondale are mixed. Gary Hart is in search of some Mondale momentum-stopping issue. If Mondale simply holds his current 2-to-1 advantage through the big primaries the next two weeks - Texas, Ohio, Maryland, North Carolina - Hart might have to switch his tactics and set his goal on 1988, instead of 1984, some in his own camp argue. Hart's strategy calls for tying up Mondale and generating a new burst of energy for his own flagging campaign.
Public-interest groups like Common Cause, which would like to see public financing of elections or tight limits on spending for those who don't accept public funding, are also critical of the PAC delegate-committee connection. They oppose PACs more broadly as forms of vote buying by special-interest groups.
There is another side to the PAC issue, however. Financial contributions to campaigns, by organizations as well as by individuals, are a useful form of participation in the political system, as are voting, walking precincts, manning telephone banks, and so forth. Private or organization giving is not in itself bad.
In the instance at hand, Mr. Mondale should want to be consistent with his own longtime support for the campaign finance laws. If there has been illegal coordination of the delegate committees, it would have the effect of undermining spending limits he has supported. Until that determination is made under FEC inquiry, he is wise to ask that the committee operation be suspended.
Any front-runner - Hart or Jesse Jackson and not just Mondale - would have gotten into the financial bind that has seized Mondale, argues Michael Malbin, campaign finance expert with the American Enterprise Institute. Piling so many primaries into the front end of the campaign meant that the front-runner had to protect himself everywhere at once. The Mondale people knew a year ago that if the nomination was not wrapped up by Super Tuesday, or mid-March, the front-runner would be in financial trouble.
The irony, of course, is that early on when Mondale could outspend Hart, Hart was winning. And now that Hart can outspend Mondale, the Minnesotan is winning.
There is a case, too, for PAC contributions to delegate committees, quite apart from supporting a candidate's campaign. The delegate's interests and the candidate's are not necessarily identical. An interest group - labor, business, environmental, women's rights, professional, or social-issue organizations - might want representation at the national party convention. The party platform and other party matters are of interest to such groups, as they are to delegates as individuals. Under new Democratic convention rules, delegates are not even bound to vote for a designated candidate on the first ballot.
Halting contributions to delegate committees to enforce limits on candidate expenditures could therefore conflict with legitimate support of the delegate's convention role.