Washington — Walter Mondale has set his sights on about 20 target states where he hopes to pull a stunning upset over Ronald Reagan. The target states - which include such giants as California, New York, and Pennsylvania - have enough electoral votes to put the White House back into Democratic hands.
Political experts continue to be skeptical about Mr. Mondale's prospects. The polls are all Reagan, Reagan, Reagan. The final debate apparently failed to give Mondale a boost. There's even doubt among some political insiders that Mondale will carry his home state of Minnesota.
Yet Mondale aides, such as campaign chairman James Johnson, reject such talk and insist they see favorable glimmers. In New York State, where Mondale was once far behind, a poll by Newsday found that Reagan now leads by only 44 to 41 percent. The race appears to have tightened in Pennsylvania and California. And in Minnesota, the latest newspaper poll gives Mondale a 6-point edge.
Mondale's target-state strategy has some surprises.
Democrats used to win White House races by putting together Eastern states with big-city voters, heavily unionized Midwestern states and the solid South.
That kind of easy formula has evaporated. The South is gone, says pollster Lou Harris. The union vote, once heavily Democratic, has split - a change that began with Richard Nixon and his hard-hat support in 1972 against George McGovern. The Roman Catholic vote, vital in the big cities, and once mostly Democratic, leans toward President Reagan.
All this has forced Mondale to try a new political mix. It looks like this:
The South. With the Deep South, plus Florida and Texas, probably lost, Mondale now can hope only to chip away a few Southern border states, such as Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky.
The Northeast. This is the Democratic base, but it is eroding. Mondale picked a New Yorker as his running mate, which should help. States like New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts are ''must win'' races for any Democrat, but states like New Jersey and Connecticut are probably gone.
The Midwest. A see-saw region where union and ethnic voters in the past have helped deliver states like Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio to the Democrats. Mondale needs just about all the swing states, plus a couple of usually Republican states like Iowa.
The Pacific coast. This is where Mondale hopes to make up, at least partly, for declines in the South. His strategists say Geraldine A. Ferraro has great appeal in the West, and helps boost support for the ticket among younger voters in this region.
One can see this strategy unfolding as Mondale and Ms. Ferraro travel this week.
Mondale raced through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York on Monday. On Tuesday, he hit such swing states as Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. Today, he will be on a farm in Canton, Mo., hold a rally in Burlington, Iowa, and finish the day in Milwaukee.
By week's end, Mondale will be in California and then move northward along the Pacific coast. The West Coast has clearly become a linchpin for Mondale. ''We'll probably be back there one more time after this weekend. It's that crucial,'' says a Mondale adviser.
Ms. Ferraro's timetable shows a similar West Coast tilt. After a stop in Arkansas on Tuesday, Ferraro went directly to San Diego. From there it's all California: Santa Barbara, Fresno, Oakland, San Jose, Stockton, and San Francisco.
While the West Coast states, especially Oregon, look rather close, political strategists say they can hardly make up for the loss of most of the South. The 11 states of the old Confederacy have 138 electoral votes, or more than 51 percent of the 270 needed for election. As more of those states slide regularly into the Republican column, it becomes harder and harder to elect a Democratic president.
To offset the loss of the South, some Democrats think Mondale should keep hitting hard at social issues such as abortion and school prayer. Mondale favors a woman's right to an abortion and opposes state-sponsored prayer in the public schools. Young, affluent, and well-educated voters - all now leaning toward President Reagan - are closer to Mondale on these particular issues.
But it appears to be Mr. Reagan who benefits more from the social debate. He has used it to solidify his Sunbelt base by identifying himself with evangelical Protestants who have become politically active in the past decade.
The real driving force behind this election, however, appears to be the economy - and that's no help to Mondale. And with money in their pockets, Americans appear happy with the status quo.