Washington — Over the years, Karl Rolvaag was a friend and ally of both Walter Mondale and Hubert H. Humphrey in the turbulent world of Minnesota politics. Mr. Rolvaag, a former governor, speaks fondly of the states's two political giants. But he also notes some important differences in the personalities of the two men.
''It's somewhat heretical for me to say these things, but Humphrey is a much more loved person now than Mondale is,'' says Rolvaag. ''However, I think Mondale could become a better president than Humphrey (might have been).''
Rolvaag explains his views this way:
''Mondale has the talent and the ability to say 'no.' ... Humphrey loved everybody and didn't want to disappoint anybody. The gigantic heart was Humphrey. Mondale can be a little more cold.''
Rolvaag's views are especially relevant at this moment because he was the person who catapulted Mondale, at an early age, onto the national stage. That was in 1964, when Governor Rolvaag had to select a new senator to fill the unexpired term of Humphrey, who had just been elected vice-president on the Democratic ticket with Lyndon B. Johnson.
Rolvaag recalls that the list of potential senators was impressive. There was Orville Freeman, who had been governor. There was Eugenie Anderson, a ''highly talented'' person and America's first woman ambassador (to Denmark in 1950). There was Walter Mondale, the state's young, ambitious attorney general. And there were a dozen others, equally impressive, including Walter Heller, the well-known economist, and Donald Frazer, who later became mayor of Minneapolis.
Rolvaag chose Mondale. He still remembers why. ''I wanted someone who was going to be clean and honest and reelectable,'' he says. ''I knew Mondale was going to get reelected. I knew he'd be there for as long as he'd want to stay, that he would achieve the seniority he needed.''
There was something else Rolvaag has always liked about Mondale.
''Mondale has a deep compassion and an abiding and deep interest in mankind. I'm thoroughly convinced on that. He wants to help people.''
That compassion and strength, combined with a near-perfect instinct for political timing, put Mondale on the road to Washington. But this fall many loyal Minnesota Democrats - looking at Ronald Reagan's lead in the polls - are worried that Mondale's usually reliable political savvy is failing him. They wonder if the current, one-sided presidential race indicates that Mondale rose through the ranks too fast, too easily, and with too little toughening along the way. He was, they recall, appointed as Minnesota attorney general, appointed to the US Senate, and, in effect, appointed vice-president under Jimmy Carter.
He's never had to fight for a job as an outsider looking in. But anyone who studies Mondale's modest, rural background would have to chuckle at the thought that the son of the Rev. Theodore Mondale, a country Methodist minister, might have had things too soft.
As a boy, however, Mondale belonged to a family that endured all sorts of hardships - serious illness, financial ruin, even demotion for the Rev. Mondale within the church. Yet through it all, the family endured. The children were raised with a firm but loving hand. And the Mondales became a solid part of the community of farmers and tradespeople with whom they lived in southern Minnesota.
It was the Mondale family itself which nurtured in young Walter a keen political interest. Finlay Lewis, the Mondale biographer, notes that there were two political heroes in the household: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson, a self-proclaimed radical who ran the state from 1930 to 1936.
Governor Olson in particular appealed to the Rev. Mr. Mondale's political instincts, which might be described as populist. The populists heaped abuse on the rich, on Wall Street, on those forces out of their control which they felt were driving down commodity prices and sending farmers into bankruptcy.
To this day, there is a distrust of great wealth which runs through the speeches of Walter Mondale. ''I refuse to make your families pay more (taxes) so that millionaires can pay less,'' he recently told a crowd in a characteristic jab at money and power.
There is another side of Walter Mondale which many Minnesotans find delightful, but which somehow never seems to find its way onto the evening TV news. Mondale, say his friends, is fun-loving, good-humored, and even mischievious.
There was no doubt about that when he was a youngster. Then, as now, he was known to his friends as Fritz. His great prank at Halloween was tipping over outhouses. (''All rural Minnesota kids did that,'' says Rolvag.) Fritz used to shoot pool down at the local hall - always keeping a hat pulled low over his face so his parents wouldn't spot him. Once he was caught building a bridge across a street by using hymnbooks from his dad's church.
None of those things really worried Fritz's parents. But other things did: stealing,lying, cheating, or bragging about himself. There was the time, for instance, when Fritz was caught taking coins from the Sunday collection plate. Any infraction like that meant the sting of a switch.
In high school, Fritz gained some local attention as ''Crazy Legs,'' the swift left-halfback and co-captain of the football team. He also starred in basketball (he was an all-conference guard) and was a sprinter on the track team.
Those formative years grounded young Mondale in qualities one can still see today: a liberal political philosophy, an empathy for the working man, a sense of proportion, a quietness born of his Norwegian heritage, an understanding of religious values.
When one asks those who know Mondale very well what type of person he is, several phrases keep coming back.
* That he is a political liberal.
* That he is very cautious.
* That he is endowed with a healthy view of the world and of himself.
* That he has a marvelous sense of humor.
* That he has a toughness that is sometimes masked by his soft-spoken manner.
* That ''what you see is what you get,'' as Mondale sometimes says. This is true, acquaintances say. He's a man without surprises.
Among a wide circle of Mondale associates, he is almost always described as a traditional liberal. Biographer Lewis makes that point repeatedly. An old Mondale political associate from his Minnesota days, who asked not to be quoted by name, calls Mondale a ''committed progressive.''
Such descriptions, however, require some elaboration.
Mondale's political roots are rural and Midwestern. He has little feeling, friends say, for the other major branch of American liberalism found in Northeastern, ethnic communities. His choice of Geraldine A. Ferraro for vice-president is an effort to reach out to those other liberals.
If elected, there seems little doubt that Mondale would look back for ideas to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and others in the modern Democratic tradition. Says a Minnesota friend: ''Every push and pull in the world would be on the side of the old Great Society constituencies - not only maintaining all social-security entitlement benefits, but trying to meet demands of blacks in terms of affirmative action....
Combined with his liberalism, however, is Mondale's innate caution. He would not be a great innovator or risk-taker, those close to him say. One friend notes:
''He wouldn't be about to get us mired down in a second-class war, much less a first-class one. He (also) would not do as Reagan would with Kemp-Roth (tax reductions), for instance, and take some major risk with the economy for the well-being of the country, on the basis of ideology.''
The same friend continues: ''He doesn't have big dreams. And he isn't, as his mentor Humphrey was, compelled to satisfy his visions of social justice and a world without weapons. ... He is a pragmatic, operating, organization man, who (works) within a generally progressive context. If he has to choose, he will always try to choose the progressive, liberal side.''
One of the most important qualities that any president can have, of course, is personal stability. The man or woman with a finger on the nuclear button needs to be someone that Americans can trust.
Those who have known Mondale for many years all express confidence that he is such a person. Maxine Isaacs, one of Mondale's five or six closest advisers, makes the point that is echoed by others. ''Mondale's best personal quality,'' she says, is ''his total mental health and sense of proportion.''
Along that same line, anyone who has traveled very much with Mondale cannot miss his quick sense of humor - often exercised at his own expense. A typical day on the campaign trail with Mondale will see at least a couple jibes at himself.
On one occasion, in Florida, Mondale gave what his biographer called a ''deadly dull'' speech. He seemed to realize it. When asked whether he thought it was a good speech, Mondale replied: ''I don't know. I fell asleep halfway through.''
Thomas Cronin, a professor who has worked for Mondale and helped him write a book, calls Mondale's sense of humor an important indicator. ''I think you have to ... be able to use humor on occasion to be able to relax the strain of politics. Humorless men have not done well. (Herbert) Hoover, (Richard) Nixon, and Jimmy Carter are three examples in my lifetime who are humorless. Three very different men. But they couldn't take a joke, couldn't tell a joke.
''On the other hand, look at the people who could tell a joke and take a joke - Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan. They use humor to advantage. ... They had an inner security of knowing who they were.''
In private, says one longtime associate, Mondale is ''very breezy, irreverent , and caustic.''
He loves the outdoors. He's a great companion. Robert Stauss, a Democratic Party veteran, says Mondale could have probably raised his vote in the South by 5 or 6 points if he'd just shown what he's really like by going on hunting trips in a few Southern states.
Then there is the quality of toughness. Mondale isn't known widely for his steely character, but his personal qualities, say those who know him well, include a kind of quiet strength that could make him a good chief executive.
It's true that he does not like personal confrontation. He usually won't stand face-to-face and dress down a staff member guilty of some failure. But in his own way, he rules those under him with a firm hand. Over the years, he has quickly dropped loyal staffers whom he felt weren't ready to follow him to higher office.
Finally: What would a Mondale White House be like?
A Mondale administration, the experts say, probably would be somewhat bland. It would not feature sweepinmg new programs or ideological initiatives. When he was a senator, some critics say, he seemed drawn to peripheral issues, rather than the major, important, and risky ones like civil rights, medicare, or arms control.
As for Mondale himself, the man is what you see, acquaintances say. No surprises. No hidden agendas. No dark side that's yet to be uncovered.
''He's a moral man,'' says a friend. ''He'd be a good, hard-working president , but not a daring leader.''
Walter Frederick MONDALE. A TIMELINE
1928: Born Jan. 5 in Ceylon, Minn.
1951: BA, cum laude, University of Minnesota
1951-53: US Army service, 1951-53 (Korean war)
1955: Married Joan Adams, Dec. 27
(children: Theodore, Eleanor, William)
1956: LLB, University of Minnesota
1956: Admitted to Minnesota Bar
1956-60: Private practice of law
1960-64: Attorney General of Minnesota
1964-77: US senator from Minnesota
1977-81: Vice-President of US
1981-present: Presidential candidate
Next: What Mondale Would Do As President