Mondale's challenge: how to keep campaign fire stoked

Walter Mondale kicked off his run with a well-paced, major-league tour of three states, with 20 public and press meetings - over four days with hardly a hitch. Five months of planning and nearly 40 advance team workers made sure he would touch all bases - hard-hit labor towns, rural groups, old and young, campus and town hall - with the aplomb worthy of a front-runner.

Still, the view from the Mondale camp, from the leading edge of the campaign, is tinged with unreality.It's awfully early, and Mr. Mondale's own advisers are uneasy.

''How do you maintain the intensity, the chemistry of a campaign when you start this early?'' asks Les Francis, a top Carter campaigner in 1980 and now with Mondale.

''How many new ideas can you keep coming up with for the campaign?'' Mr. Francis asks. ''How do you hold interest, not only in the public and the media, but also in your organization? You have to do new things like newsletters for the campaign. You have to do more candidate travel than you'd like to to rev up the troops.''

Part of the answer, from campaign workers' point of view, will be to stage the campaign in ''moments'' or spurts of activity. In two weeks Mondale, for instance, will make his first official Southern tour. The candidates will attend straw-poll gatherings shortly in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Kansas.

Through it all, Mondale will press to hold his image as the front-runner. In New Hampshire, he has actually widened his lead for the nomination over Sen. John Glenn since last June in surveys taken by a Manchester, N.H., polling firm, Blake & Dickenson.

''There's a comfortable feeling in the campaign and outside it that Mondale is the best prepared to wear the front-runner's mantle,'' says Terry Staub, chief architect of the Mondale opening tour.

And yet, Mondale supporters are ambivalent about his lead. ''A lead at this time is an artificial lead,'' says Francis.

The recent record of early front-runners, at least on the Democratic side, is not promising for Mondale. Among Democrats, since the 1950s only Adlai Stevenson in 1956 managed to hold his lead over 18 months to win the nomination.

Mondale is ''trying to use the advantages of the front-runner,'' says Jim Johnson, acting Mondale campaign chairman. ''The single most important advantage for Mondale is to be heard. You get additional focus on your ideas, media coverage of what you say. It's easier to build political support, raise money. You can influence the political bench marks of 1983, determine the battleground by picking which events you emphasize.''

For Mondale outward signs look good. Money is coming in. Good campaign talent is aboard - including key Kennedy people.

But actually there are two campaigns for 1984 - one for the benefit of the professionals, and one for the public. It's the professional campaign that's under way.

Mondale's early tour - and those of his fellow contenders so far - was more a preview of a campaign than an actual start, as far as the public is concerned.

Even in New Hampshire, reputed to prize person-to-person campaigning, it's largely the aura of how seriously Mondale's nomination is regarded among campaign watchers that gives him his edge among the state's voters, says Richard Bennett, a Blake and Dickenson pollster. ''Mondale's support is a mile wide and an inch deep,'' says Bennett.

So far, ''undecided'' still leads Mondale and the rest of the pack in New Hampshire. Among Democratic primary voters, 44 percent said they were undecided, 41 percent for Mondale, 12 percent for Glenn, and 1 or 2 percent for other Democrats in Blake and Dickenson's survey at the start of February.

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