New York — Peter Hart, the pollster for Walter Mondale, says many people think you have to know the secret strategies of the presidential candidates to really understand a campaign. That isn't true, he insists.
Instead, he says, all that's necessary is to watch the candidates: see where they go and listen to what they say. That will tell you just about everything.
The past few days illustrate Mr. Hart's point. Looking at where Walter Mondale is going this week, and where President Reagan has just gone, one can figure out where each candidate expects the critical battlegrounds to be this fall.
On Tuesday, Mr. Mondale, with Geraldine A. Ferraro at his side, opened his general election campaign at a steamy, flag-waving lunchtime rally here in Ms. Ferraro's native Queens. Praising ''patriotism'' and ''hard work,'' favorite Reagan themes, Mondale and his running mate then flew to Ohio and Mississippi, with further stops planned in Texas.
Texas was also on Ronald Reagan's itinerary when he went barnstorming last week - along with Georgia and New Jersey.
The Mondale-Ferraro team has been called a ''Frost Belt'' ticket, since each candidate comes from a Northern state. Its natural strength, based both on ideology and geography, lies in the big, minority-populated cities of the East and the smokestack cities of the industrial Midwest. As the candidates' New York and Ohio stops show, the Democratic team must first shore up its strength in this Northern tier of states, where it will have to sweep almost everything to have a chance in November.
But Mondale planners know that, to win, they will have to break out of this Midwest-Northeast belt and pick up nearly 100 electoral votes somewhere else. The overriding question for Mondale is: Where?
Likewise, the team of President Reagan and George Bush has its own natural base - the West. In election after election the Republicans have walked away with most Western states, and this year should be no different. Only in Hawaii do Democratic candidates win with any regularity.
Reagan-Bush, however, cannot be elected with just the West. Like the Democrats, they must look beyond their natural base. Again, the question is: Where?
First, a look at Democratic strategy.
If Mondale can lock up most of the Northeast and Midwest, his best hope of gaining the rest of the 270 electoral votes he needs for victory will almost certainly come in the South. His trips to Mississippi and Texas show this.
Why the South? First, let's look at Texas.
The Lone Star State has a Democratic tradition. It voted for John Kennedy in 1960, for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Jimmy Carter in 1976. It was the home of House Speaker Sam Rayburn and today sends Democratic whip Jim Wright to the House. It's an axiom of presidential politics that no Democrat wins the White House without Texas.
Although Vice-President Bush hails from Texas, Democrats have hope there. Hispanic political power is growing, and Hispanics mostly vote Democratic. The Democrats have recently retaken the governor's office. With tremendous voter turnout efforts, Texas Democrats could help Mondale-Ferraro pull an upset, if everything clicked.
Beyond Texas, there are a number of Southern states, including Mississippi, where the contest could be very close. Democrats mention as many as eight: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Mississippi, where the Mondale-Ferraro team campaigns today, went for Reagan in 1980 by a mere 11,808 votes. Heavy voter registration efforts among blacks could quickly overcome such a deficit in 1984.
Some of the other states look just as winnable. Alabama went for Reagan by only 17,462 votes. Arkansas was Republican by a mere 5,123 votes. Louisiana's margin was 84,400 votes. The margin in North Carolina was 39,383; in South Carolina, 11,456; Tennessee, 4,710. And in Georgia, home of Jimmy Carter, the Democrats came out ahead.
Furthermore, John Anderson was running in every one of those states in 1980 and was believed to have drawn away more votes from Democrats than from Republicans. He won't be on the ballot this year.
One sobering thought in all this for Democrats: In 1980, the party had a Southerner heading the ticket and still lost every state but one in Dixie. Can Democrats really expect to do better this time?
Republicans, seeking to add to their Western base, look at three major target areas: Texas, the Deep South, and the Frost Belt.
Texas, while difficult, looks ''doable.'' As in the North, a key appears to be Roman Catholic (in Texas, Hispanic) voters, who can be added to Reagan's natural Protestant constituency. As swing voters, Catholics have been furiously courted by Reagan. He has sent an ambassador to the Vatican. He backs prayer in the schools. He opposes abortion. He favors federal tax credits to help parochial schools. All this, so far, without sparking a serious backlash among Protestants.
The President's constant references to God, family, and the flag also play well among Hispanics, as well as with Catholic ethnic groups in Northern states. All this, GOP strategists hope, will help Reagan hang on to Texas once more.
Florida and Virginia also look good for Reagan, but the rest of the South will be harder. The President probably needs 60 percent of the Southern white vote to offset heavy black voter efforts.
In the Frost Belt, there are several almost-sure Reagan states: New Hampshire , Vermont, and Indiana. He needs more, and thus his visit to New Jersey.
Even if Mondale-Ferraro continue to gain strength, Republicans expect to stay in the fight to the end in states like New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Mondale must break the GOP grip on these states to have any hope of victory.