It's early in the 1984 political year. But already it's hard to avoid a conclusion: There is a ''big question'' to be settled. It will be settled in November.
The big question is whether Mr. Reagan, presuming he runs, will be reelected. Some people want him to win. Some people want him to lose.
By comparison, the naming of a Democratic nominee looks like a little question. At least that's what the electorate appears to conclude.
Walter Mondale benefits from the Democrats' wanting to get on with the big question. This seems the most logical explanation for Mondale's continuous amassing of strength as the primaries near.
To the rank and file, Mondale as a former vice-president has paid his dues in the leadership succession. In an otherwise unexceptional lineup of current and former senators, a former governor, and a black civil rights leader, a former vice-president outranks the rest. George McGovern, as a failed presidential banner-carrier, must earn his way back into the succession by winning some fights on the road.
We're not saying Mondale has wrapped it up. That's the voters' decision to make. It wasn't very long ago the odds were against him to beat the field. There's the potential gaffe he could spring on himself. And the hurdle of ''expectations'': By how much does he have to win the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary? President Johnson's surrogate in New Hampshire in 1968 beat Eugene McCarthy, but Johnson was declared the loser. People forget Edmund Muskie beat McGovern in 1972. No ''win spread'' has been set for Mondale in next month's opening nomination events. Certainly Alan Cranston's claim that Mondale has to win a clear majority - 50 percent - in the openers is absurd.
Again, Mondale will have to win it in the voting booths, not in endorsements or the opinion polls.
Yet the evidence in the surveys cannot be dismissed. In national and state surveys, Mondale is getting close to half the Democratic vote. Gallup has it Mondale 47 percent, Glenn 16 percent. ABC News: Mondale 45 percent, Glenn 22 percent, Jackson 15 percent. In New Hampshire, pollsters Blake and Dickenson have it Mondale 54 percent, Glenn 17 percent, Hart 5 percent, Jackson 5 percent, with 14 percent undecided.
The trend has been in Mondale's favor. Granted such a numerical lead can shift if something provides the incentive to move it. The electorate today is weakly moored, political scientist Everett Carll Ladd emphasizes. At this point of the race, two-thirds of the electorate might feel no strong attachment to any candidate. And remember Ronald Reagan's lackluster showing in Iowa's opening caucus in 1980, with George Bush boasting of ''big mo,''or early momentum. A debate or two in New Hampshire, with Reagan seizing the mike, settled that campaign right then and there.
Still, Mondale seems to be ratifying the Democratic rank-and-file view that the big contest is with the Republicans in the fall.
Surely three hours of televised debate among the Democratic contenders showed no significant ideological or programmatic split within the party.
Neither can we buy the argument that media attention, focusing on the two or three front-runners, accounts for Mondale's lead. The media has been metering their in-depth coverage of the individual candidates. From there it's up to the candidates themselves. Nor is it the money Mondale has raised or spent. It certainly can't be charisma - not when he's constantly called too cautious.
Mondale's edge isn't what he's bought with ''special interest'' endorsements. He's still struggling against that charge. But his backing has come more accurately from party voter blocs - blacks, labor, women, environmentalists. It came early partly because these Democratic constituencies sense a more generalized political battle ahead in November.
Mondale, anticipating a showdown against the Republican, has already begun to run general campaign-style ads, talking centrist themes that sound quite Reagan-like. ''We want to be first again,'' he says of American ambitions. Reagan could prove too tough if Mondale waits until after winning the nomination to start his broader-based appeal.
Ironically then, Reagan's strength has been driving Mondale's remarkable early prominence. The incumbent Republican is the Democratic issue.