Salt Lake City — A campaign bus crowded with reporters lurched along Interstate 80 through Carley's Canyon the other day. Although it was only 7:30 in the morning, the bleary-eyed journalists were scribbling notes at top speed as a senior Mondale aide briefed them on the day's major speech.
The topic: control of nuclear arms.
Although most of the reporters had not even eaten their breakfast yet, they dug into the nuclear arms topic with relish.
What was really new, they asked, about Walter Mondale's speech that day? What chance was there that the Soviets would accept a Mondale idea for a six-month ''pause'' in nuclear testing? How would Mr. Mondale react if he were elected and the Soviets rejected out of hand his call for a moratorium?
The Mondale briefer, national-security adviser David Aaron, answered each question patiently over the roar of the bus's engine. Finally, the reporters' appetites were satisfied, and the bus rumbled on in silence toward the Salt Palace here, where Mondale gave his arms control speech before the national convention of the American Legion.
On nuclear arms, church-state relations, and other subjects, Mondale is now laying out what he considers to be the cutting issues of Election '84. His deficit reduction plan is to be revealed today.
Each of these issues was chosen for two reasons. First, they show important differences between Mondale and President Reagan. Second, they can be crucial, the Mondale team feels, in helping the Democratic candidate with large voting groups that he and vice-presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro need in November.
The groups that Mondale is targeting can be divided into two large blocs. There are the longtime Democrats, many of them blue-collar unionists, who voted for Reagan in 1980. And there are the ''soft,'' or nominal, Democrats, as well as independents, who backed Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic primaries.
If Mondale can win back enough Reagan-voting Democrats, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, his prospects will sharply improve in such pivotal states as New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. If Democrats and independents who voted for Hart can be captured, Mondale's chances will soar in California, Oregon, Washington, and a number of other states, especially in the West and New England.
Mondale strategists see little chance of winning with these groups, if the election becomes merely a Mondale-Reagan personality contest. The President is obviously well liked, and Mondale cannot change that.
This is why issues - as well as Ms. Ferraro - have become central to Mondale's strategy. Highlighting the issues helps to separate Reagan, the man, from Reagan, the policymaker. While Reagan is personally popular, his policies have far less support from the public, according to both private and public polls.
Mondale campaign chairman Jim Johnson points to California as one place where polls indicate that Reagan is vulnerable - if Mondale can focus in on the issues.
There is, for example, the question of who would do a better job of keeping the United States out of war with the Soviet Union. Mondale runs 10 points ahead of Reagan in California on that question, polls show.
Mondale runs 38 points ahead of Reagan in California on protecting medicare benefits, 23 percent ahead on fairness to the middle class, and 23 points ahead on protecting the environment.
It is finding a way to exploit those strengths that has so far eluded the Mondale campaign. But Democratic planners hope that they can take advantage of some of the lessons learned during the grueling primaries last spring. Hart voters, for example, responded very positively to subjects like arms control and the environment - both areas where Mondale easily leads Reagan.
Blue-collar Democrats seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the importance of the deficit, and what that may mean for interest rates. Mondale wants to show that deficits lead to high interest rates, and high interest rates lead to loss of foreign trade, and loss of trade leads to loss of jobs.
Making these connections, however, can be tough. Journalists, like those on the bus here, listen with keen interest to the nuances of the issues, because it's their job. Many voters don't have that kind of motivation.
Supplementing Mondale's appeal on the issues, his aides say, is Ms. Ferraro. Her Italian roots help with blue-collar ethnic voters in the East and Midwest. And she helps with women, with independents, and with Westerners, all of whom Mondale hopes will be drawn to the freshness of his ticket, the first among major parties to feature a woman.
Mondale's problem - one he hasn't yet overcome even with Ferraro's help - is to instill his issue-oriented campaign with the fire and oratory that can capture voter imagination and instill Democrats with excitement. His Salt Lake City address was an example. His call for a six-month ''pause'' to test Soviet intentions was considered bold. But legionnaire response was only tepid.
Mondale, however, presses on - hoping that somehow in the remaining 56 days of this race he will strike the spark that finally begins moving voters his way.
''Right now the public is looking at the race in the personality sense, and if it makes its decision on that level, Ronald Reagan has the edge,'' says Mark DiCamillo of the Field Institute, a polling organization in California. ''For Mondale to shift to issues is his best bet. But I don't know if the public makes up its mind on just issues.''
Richard Scammon, a leading election expert in Washington, says the electorate is witnessing the standard campaign scenario: each candidate trying to smoke out his opponent, each trying to position the other to be more specific, each pointing with alarm to the possibility of the opponent getting elected.
Unless there is some dramatic idea or proposal, Scammon says, the public tends not to pay attention to the issues. In fact the usual political tactic is to be ''as little specific as you can,'' he remarks.
As he analyzes it, the Democrats face a formidable problem this year because the Democratic Party is no longer the majority party in presidential contests, even though polls show voters identifying more with the Democratic Party than the Republican. Out of the last four elections, Republicans won three (in 1968, '72, and '80) and the Democrats barely squeaked by in one ('76). What this reflects, he says, is that the ''thread of history is running out'' on the Democrats. Southern whites, though they have labeled themselves Democrats since the Civil War, are conservative.
Also, ethnic constituencies, including Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans , and much of the Roman Catholic vote in general have moved into the middle class and are also today more centrist.
''So it's too easy to blame things on campaign strategists or on the candidate,'' Scammon says. ''You have to go beyond that. All things being equal, the tendency is to go with a Republican president.''
In that light, Mondale and the Democrats are doing what they should be doing: hammering away at the issues, avoiding attacking the person of a popular Reagan, and trying to engage the President in direct discourse.