Washington — The phone lines are humming daily. Reporters call pollsters. Politicians call reporters. Pollsters call pundits. All have the same question: Is there any region, any state, where Walter Mondale's campaign has begun to lift off?
Rumors abound. Mr. Mondale is reported doing a little better on the Pacific Coast, gaining in Missouri, picking up steam in Massachusetts, cutting Ronald Reagan's lead in Tennessee.
When the rumors are checked, however, the news is almost always the same. As veteran pollster Claibourne Darden Jr. says in Atlanta: ''There's not enough movement out there among voters to shake a stick at. This election is flat - and when I say flat, I mean flat.''
Mr. Darden, who polls all over the South, says there's been no more than a 2- or 3-points movement among voters in the past nine months. Reagan remains about 15 points ahead in Tennessee (one of the closer Southern states) to 20 points or more ahead in states like Georgia and Florida.
The political experts now look at Sunday night's debate as Mondale's last big hope to get something going.
The debate should help. Challengers like Mondale are traditionally given a boost by debates, while well-known incumbents are hurt.
Just by showing up at the debate and facing the President as an equal, Mondale should raise his standing. As one political analyst says:
''All Mondale has to do is stand side by side with Reagan and explain a few of the things that he stands for, and he should gain 4 or 5 points immediately.''
If Mondale finally begins moving in the polls, it should first show up in traditional Democratic strongholds, such as West Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, the experts say.
At the present time, even in West Virginia, where Democratic tradition runs as deep as the veins of coal, Mondale trails Reagan by 4 or 5 points, according ot a new private, Democratic poll.
Mondale supporters looking for rays of hope have only the faintest of glimmers to focus on at the moment. Here are a few of them:
* In New York State, the polls have been mixed. The Marist Institute for Public Opinion showed the race 45 to 45 last month, but a later New York Daily News poll gave Reagan a margin of 51 to 37 margin.
Lee M. Miringoff of the Marist Institute says Mondale's biggest recent gains have been among Jewish voters who are apparently concerned that Reagan is tearing down the wall of church-state separation.
The outcome in New York State could depend on turnout among Jews, blacks, and Hispanics (mostly pro-Mondale) and Protestants and Roman Catholics (pro-Reagan). The key battleground will be the suburbs, but Mondale looks weak there, Dr. Miringoff says.
* In Missouri, some analysts say the race has tightened a bit. A poll by the Kansas City Times on Sept. 22 found Missouri voters divided 41 to 34 for Reagan, but a huge 25 percent were undecided or didn't plan to vote.
* In California, pollster Mervin Field found last month that Reagan was 16 points ahead. But a later poll by a television station put the spread at only 12 points. Mr. Field says the polls could show Mondale has bottomed out in California, but there's ''no real resurgence'' for him.
* In Massachusetts, the polls have jumped around, with one showing Mondale 10 points ahead recently. Others, however, show Reagan with a small lead.
* Out West, says pollster Lou Harris, Reagan's big lead has been whittled down to about 7 points. ''Anybody who says the West is Reagan country ... that it should be written off by the Democrats, is just talking nonsense,'' says Mr. Harris. On the other hand, Harris says the South is ''gone'' for Mondale.
Pollster Field, who tracks state surveys all across the country, says that as of Oct. 2, the race looked like this:
- 31 states, ''probable Reagan.''
- 14 states, ''leaning Reagan.''
- 5 states, ''tossups.''
- 0 states, ''probable Mondale.''
- 1 ''state,'' the District of Columbia, ''leaning Mondale.''
Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, a strong Reagan supporter, jokes that the only remaining question about this election is whether the District of Columbia will move over to the Reagan column.
Field, who admits he has underestimated Reagan's political prowess in the past, says the current election ''is phenomenal.''
Reagan is overpowering Mondale even though the broad center of the Democratic Party - unions, blacks, teachers, and others - is reasonably united. Reagan's latest nationwide lead (Gallup poll) is 18 points.
It could be worse for Mondale, of course. At this point in the 1972 race, George McGovern trailed Richard M. Nixon by 28 percent.