Big risks and big opportunities roll in the wake of Walter Mondale's course toward the Democratic nomination. The risks aren't just for Mondale. They're for the Democrats too. For the Democratic constituencies now anteing up early for a bigger stake in the November l984 outcome. And for voters generally.
Two union blocs - the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO - have just endorsed Mondale. The National Organization for Women promises to endorse a candidate by yearend - most likely Mondale, if his frontrunnership is sustained. Will seniors, another group unhappy with the GOP in Washington, be next to seek more leverage later by gambling early on a likely winner? And blacks? Hispanics? Environmentalists?
Weren't the Democratic leaders trying to shorten their primary season and strengthen their convention?
The most obvious danger for the interest group leaderships is that they might pick the wrong horse. Leaders are an elite. They don't always reflect the views of the rank and file. John Glenn, for example, does nearly as well as Mondale among union workers as a Democratic nominee, just as he does among all Democrats nationally. For Glenn to wipe Mondale out in the primaries after Iowa would leave those leaders, as well as their constituencies, with less clout, not more.
What's going on is an attempt to add another pre-election chapter to the party nominating process. It used to be that the power groups held off until the primaries had given a clear reading in the spring. They would often withhold their blessing until the convention itself. If this pre-primary endorsement phase becomes the norm in future years, it will forge yet another iron link in the perpetual presidential election.
The labor endorsements help Mondale by lending more legitimacy to his frontrunner status. They will bring him considerable resources in many states - notably in the first caucus test, Iowa, but less so in New Hampshire, the first actual primary.
On the downside, they remind the public of the two major organizational groups that generate big opposition - big labor and big business - even within Democratic ranks. Carter had labor support in 1980 but many rank and file workers backed Reagan. A larger portion of the Democratic electorate is suspicious of big labor than is often assumed. This is particularly true in the South, crucial to 1984 Democratic success.
Farther down the road, in the fall '84 runup, Mondale - if he's the nominee - could seem too much in labor's box. This could give the opposition - especially if it's incumbent Reagan - more room to maneuver. Mondale would have to work his way out of that box. He would have to cut a fine line between holding the support of interest groups without becoming their captive.
Glenn, while losing out on labor's pre-primary endorsement, has some solace. He'd competed for labor support while trying to distinguish himself from Mondale. This helps point up the difference between the two men. It defines Glenn more as a general election candidate, already one of his strengths. Besides, we're just two weeks away from the debut of the film ''The Right Stuff.'' The astronaut movie should have some impact on the campaign in dramatizing Glenn's candidacy.
As practical politics, if Mondale keeps going over all the remaining hurdles to the nomination, the endorsements will signal he is a more formidable candidate than his reputation might suggest. A Reagan-Mondale or a Reagan-Glenn election already looks like a close one. As a measure of political energy and acumen, the endorsements make Mondale look more competitive, not less, to Reagan strategists.
But such endorsements, if institutionalized, will string out the already too long presidential campaign. And they will get us further from the democratic ideal of regular folk voting - in caucus/primaries and the general election - for the man or woman of their choice.
The next election has already been shaping up as a fundamental test of traditional party strength. Large Democratic constituencies - labor, blacks, the elderly, women, hispanics, environmentalists - already have drifted back to the party's fold. The November '84 test, as so often the case, will come at the center of the political spectrum. Election-schedule preempting by interest groups now can only make their choice look less like a candidate of the middle when it counts later.