Washington — More than any other factor, her nomination infused excitement and a sense of history into a dull Democratic campaign that otherwise failed to arouse the contented electorate.
At the national convention, she gave the feuding Democratic factions their one cause for celebration and at least the patina of unity.
And at that early stage, Walter F. Mondale's campaign officials predicted confidently that the first woman on the national party ticket would net them 2 to 3 additional points at the polls.
But the end of the story was to be different. Soon after the euphoria of the San Francisco convention, Geraldine A. Ferraro, the little-known congresswoman from Queens, stepped into a morass of controversy over her family finances. The vice-presidential nominee fended off most of the criticism, but some of the glitter of her candidacy was gone.
An inexperienced speaker, she gamely traveled the country, bringing out gigantic crowds by vice-presidential standards. Not only did she outdraw her GOP counterpart, Vice-President George Bush, but she sparked a spontaneous outpouring of affection around the country, as her backers shouted, ''Gerry, Gerry.''
At the Bush rallies, the supporters and the cheers were more focused on President Reagan.
Yet when Americans voted last week, the Ferraro candidacy was buried in the Reagan avalanche. It is almost impossible to measure the exact impact, but exit polls indicated that she did not bring votes to the Mondale ticket and possibly subtracted some. The ticket lost even in her Queens congressional district.
Some polling data show that she increased the ''intensity of commitment'' among voters who leaned Democratic, says Charles Manatt, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But the question of whether voters will pull a lever for a woman candidate because of her gender has been answered in the negative.
Some analysts are saying Mondale made a major error in picking Representative Ferraro, because her New York base did not give him a geographic or philosophical balance. Reagan-Bush campaign director Ed Rollins, who applauds her for being a ''tremendous candidate,'' says that ''she probably cemented the South for us.''
Democrats are not conceding a mistake. Duane Garett, vice-chairman of the Mondale campaign, points to less tangible benefits from the Ferraro candidacy.
''Can you image what the convention and the campaign would have been without her?'' he says, adding that ''Gerry added vibrance to the campaign'' that made the ticket ''competitive.''
In his post-election press conference, however, Mr. Mondale did list her financial controversy as a major factor in his failed campaign.
The effect of the Ferraro choice on the political scene will be seen much later. ''American women will never again be second-class citizens,'' she said in her concession speech, and speaking of opening new doors for women.
''I think the long term effect will be dramatic,'' says Joanne Howes, director of the Women's Vote Project. She adds that the Ferraro nomination will influence ''the way women are going to look at their potential'' in running for office.
The result will be ''changing people's mind-sets,'' she says. Seeing a campaign button with a man and a woman on it is still startling to her generation, Ms. Howes says, but the next generation will ''see it as normal.''
Female participation in government has been steadily increasing, with a tripling of women elected on the state and local level during the last decade. On the federal level, progress has been much slower.
Some women candidates last summer expressed hope that Ferraro's candidacy might help sweep them into office as well.
But Ferraro was not the only woman to taste defeat. All nine of the female challengers for the US Senate lost, leaving the Senate with its current 2-to-98 female/male ratio.
In House races, 65 women ran as nominees of the major parties, and 22 won, including 20 incumbents and two newcomers. Another woman candidate is locked in such a tight race in Utah that the winner is still undetermined. There are 22 women of 435 House members.
In one bright spot for women candidates last week, Madeline Kunin (D) won her contest for governor in Vermont, bringing the number of women governors to two.
If their ranks are to increase in political office, experts say, women will have to run in far greater numbers, and that could be a major impact of the Ferraro candidacy.
On whether a woman will run on a national ticket in 1988, Reagan campaign director Rollins says the Ferraro nomination ''might have taken the pressure off for '88.''
''The key is, 'Can the person draw and add to the ticket?' '' he says. That ''depends on the woman.'' He added that one lesson from this campaign is that ''someone who is an obscure congresswoman'' does not have a big enough political base to deliver votes.
Mondale campaign official Garett counters that both parties may now routinely pick women. He says, ''The next step is you'll see a strong woman candidate in the snows of New Hampshire, and Mason City, Iowa.''