New York — Walter Mondale wants to turn 1984 into a 1948-style Democratic victory. Remember that election? Things looked as grim for President Harry Truman then as they do for Mr. Mondale today. The polls were discouraging. The Republicans were cocky. The pundits were bored - it looked like a dull, dull campaign.
Ditto, 1984. As the fall campaign made its traditional Labor Day beginning on Monday, California pollster Mervin Field observed: ''I don't know of any time in the last 40 years when the Democrats start so far out of it, with such a bleak situation.''
But as '48 proved, it's not over till it's over. Mr. Truman, with the sass of a bantam rooster, turned a dreary election into a lively race that caught the voters' fancy - and caught the Republicans napping.
The GOP is determined not to nap this time, so both parties' nominees are off to a flying start. Ronald Reagan, after a kickoff in California, heads eastward with stops in Salt Lake City and Chicago. Mr. Mondale began here on the opposite coast with a sparsely attended Labor Day parade, then jetted westward to Wisconsin and California.
In the early days of this month, the focus will clearly be on Mondale. Can he make a contest of it? Will he be able to put Reagan on the defensive - possibly on the issue of mixing religion and politics? Mondale charged in a radio broadcast Sunday that recent statements by Republicans ''raised doubts whether they respect the wall our founders placed between government and religion.'' Trying to mix religion and politics ''will corrupt our faith and divide our nation,'' Mondale warned.
Reagan begins with a lead in the polls of 10 to 23 points. (A poll released by the Los Angeles Times over the weekend reported the 23-point spread.) The President also enjoys a 53-to-33 lead over Mondale as the one better qualified to ''keep the country prosperous,'' Gallup reports. The pocketbook issue, as any expert will tell you, is usually the most powerful one on election day.
However, Reagan strategists know, and Truman once proved, that big, early leads can deflate faster than a child's balloon. Political scientist Norman Ornstein says:
''I think it's absurd to suggest that at this stage, before the vast majority of Americans have even begun to focus on their alternatives, that an election is over. Beyond 1948, we've seen a lot of other contests where candidates started out with big leads and either blew them, or almost did.''
Jimmy Carter, for example, watched glumly in 1980 as his early six-point lead over Reagan turned into a nine-point defeat in just two months.
Truman's come-out-of-nowhere victory was an even greater shock. He was 13 percent behind his Republican foe, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, when the fall campaign began. Even in the final Gallup survey, in mid-October, Truman trailed by 5 points. He eventually won by over 2 million votes.
Ken Hechler, author of ''Working With Truman: a Personal Memoir of the White House Years,'' says of 1948:
''That was the greatest miracle in political history. There is no question about that. And he did it pretty singlehandedly, too.''
Can Mondale duplicate Truman's feat?
There was one encouraging indicator for Democrats during the summer. For a brief, passing moment, they watched Mondale pull slightly ahead of Reagan in a Gallup poll. Reagan quickly regained the lead a week later. But the Mondale surge in July gave Democrats hope that Reagan is vulnerable.
Political experts say Mondale now must do several things.
First, as a challenger, he must heighten voters' concerns about Reagan. Second, he must convince voters that he is a good alternative. Third, Mondale must hope for a break - some kind of news - which could jolt voters and make them take a fresh look at both men.
Experts warn that Mondale's task this year may be even more arduous than Truman's was. David Chagall, publisher of ''Inside Campaigning,'' is one of those who sees little prospect of a Truman-style upset in November.
''Mondale has too much baggage,'' Mr. Chagall suggests. ''Truman had the reputation of independence. ... Mondale has all the baggage of the commitments he's made - the union label, all the special-interest tags.''
Professor Ornstein takes a more optimistic view of a Mondale-Truman comparison. Like Truman, says Ornstein, Mondale can be tough and feisty. Mondale further honed his political skills early this year by whipping some pretty big Democrats, including John Glenn and Gary Hart.
''Mondale showed (this year) that he can fight back when he's an underdog and when he's behind and when the pressure is on,'' Ornstein says.
Mr. Hechler, who was research director in the Truman White House and later was elected to Congress (1959-77), notes that Mondale has three major hurdles that Truman didn't face. One is television. Another is Ronald Reagan. Third is the power of the White House.
When TV is combined with the communication skills of Reagan, it presents Mondale with a challenge that might have even daunted the combative Truman.
Further, Hechler points out, Truman was the incumbent, Mondale is not. Mondale, therefore, must not only convince Americans that he is up to the job, he must also convince voters that Reagan is not. History shows that voters will only take a serious look at a challenger after they are convinced that the current occupant of the White House was a failure.
On the other hand, Mondale does have one advantage over Truman: His Democratic Party is reasonably united.
Truman didn't enjoy that luxury. He was being sniped at from the left and the right. Henry Wallace, running as a Progressive, whittled away at Truman's support in the cities, and probably cost Truman a victory in New York State. On the right, J. Strom Thurmond, running on the States' Rights ticket, took four Southern states away from Truman.
Fightin' Harry won anyway.