San Francisco — Geraldine A. Ferraro made a triumphant entrance to this Democratic convention city, waving with both arms to the tumultuous ovation in a packed San Francisco Opera House.
She hugged her way through a lineup of women friends and colleagues who were seeing her for the first time since she became the historic choice of Walter F. Mondale for vice-president.
The man who picked the New York congresswoman as his running mate moved beside her, stiffly shaking hands and dispensing a few pecks on the cheeks of women dignitaries gathered for the Democratic fund-raising event.
The scene is perhaps a preview of the dimension that the Queens lawmaker brings to the likely Democratic presidential ticket, that only days ago seemed almost devoid of life. Now, suddenly, the campaign is generating curiosity and interest. A crowd estimated at 8,000 overflowed a downtown park just for a brief glimpse of the pair.
It's hard to find a Democrat here who is not applauding the Ferraro choice - even Mondale rival Gary Hart has promised to make her his running mate if he is nominated.
She moved quickly to shore up her weakest flank - Southerners who are voicing the most serious doubts about her candidacy. Speaking to a meeting of Southern governors and state party chairmen Tuesday, she appeared to wow many of them with stories of her strong family ties, of a mother who told her that ''an educated woman is an educated family,'' and of her first congressional campaign as a candidate who is tough on crime.
''She'll be a welcome asset to our region,'' Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton said afterward. Several Southerners asked Ms. Ferraro to come soon to their regions, and she agreed.
The advice from a range of officeholders is to send her out into the country quick.
''Let her loose,'' says Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, who added in an interview that the response in his city to her candidacy has been positive. ''Let her go out and campaign. I think she'll make (Vice-President George) Bush look foolish.''
''She will help Mondale's image tremendously,'' says Rep. Bob Edgar of Pennsylvania, suggesting that the campaign should dispatch Ms. Ferraro into the smaller towns and cities where the local news media could take a close look, and , he predicts, give her positive publicity.
The campaign should send her to talk to women's groups and ethnic communities , says House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. ''I can just see her walking down through the North End,'' says the Massachusetts Democrat, referring to Boston's Italian neighborhood.
''There are some people who express dismay'' over the vice-presidential pick, says Jim Wright of Texas, majority leader of the House. But he adds that the complaints are from ''people who would not be for us'' anyway.
However, the Democrats are already facing an uphill campaign that looks as steep as a San Francisco cable-car ride. Many are beginning to take a realistic view of pluses and minuses of an untried national candidate who often shoots from the lip.
''She's got a lot to learn in a short period of time, and a national campaign is a very tough way'' to begin, Robert Strauss, former Democratic National Committee chairman, told reporters at breakfast earlier this week.
Even before her nomination became official, Ms. Ferraro has had to recant after implying that President Reagan was not a good Christian because of his policies regarding the poor.
''That's the kind of mistake you can't make too many of,'' said Mr. Strauss, who also noted that the congresswoman is a ''quick study'' who was ''one of the few bright spots'' in the Democrats' losing 1980 effort.
Other Democrats seem undisturbed about the Ferraro attack and welcome the freshness of her straight talk.
''My sense is she maybe shouldn't have said it, but it's true,'' says Rep. Robert Garcia of New York, who predicted that the forthright Ms. Ferraro will make other such statements that ''people may not like'' but that ''she should be herself.''
In fact one of her biggest supporters in politics, Speaker O'Neill, defends the Christianity remark, saying that he agrees with her on Reagan's attitude. He also says her candidacy will boost the ticket because ''anybody who creates history makes an impact.''
But other Democrats were less sanguine about the Ferraro effect. ''It won't have an impact at all'' in Oklahoma, says Rep. James R. Jones of that state. There are ''some pluses'' and ''a lot of minuses,'' but Ronald Reagan's popularity is too great in his district, says Representative Jones.
Rep. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota sees little gain for the Democratic ticket in the Midwest with the addition of Ms. Ferraro to the ticket. ''I think it's just sort of a wash, politically,'' he says.
Moreover, he points out, ''she's going to be under intense scrutiny, probably more than any candidate in decades.''
Already, a question has arisen about Ms. Ferraro's failure to report the assets of her husband, John Zaccaro, a wealthy real estate developer, in her annual financial disclosure for Congress. Neither the Mondale or the Ferraro camp would comment on the issue, which was reported in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.
Democrats, many sporting stickers proclaiming ''A woman's the ticket'' on their lapels, rarely express concern about the Queens representative's relative lack of experience. She has served in Congress for six years and spent four years as a public prosecutor before that. She worked her way through law school at night and also was in private law practice, as well as being a wife and mother of three. Although the Mondale-Ferraro team has made few public appearances so far, the former vice-president has already set a theme for the Ferraro candidacy. She is the proof that hard work and self-reliance can advance the daughter of a garment worker to the nomination for vice-president, fulfilling the ''American dream,'' Mondale explains.
''That is what the Mondale-Ferraro administration is all about,'' he said this week.
The question now is if the running mate will upstage the principal. The novelty of having a woman run for vice-president will put the spotlight on Ms. Ferraro, who is the more at ease and outgoing of the two candidates.
Although she has proved to be an adequate but not stirring speaker in her appearances so far, Americans will doubtless be hanging on virtually every word, while many have long ago grown weary of Mondale's campaign speechifying and debates.