Mondale in New Hampshire - no shoo-in
Manchester, N.H. — Mondale, Mondale, Mondale. Reading the polls or watching TV, you'd think the Democratic presidential race was almost over, with Walter Mondale an easy victor. But here in wintry New Hampshire, one hears another story from people like Bonnie Woodburn and Mitchell Dugan.
Every day, from an office over Brooks Drug Store on Elm Street, Mrs. Woodburn , Mr. Dugan, and other volunteers telephone hundreds of Manchester voters to find out who's ahead in the New Hampshire primary. And every day, the message that comes back from the voters is the same:
* Walter Mondale remains out front, but . . . .
* Most voters are still ''undecided.''
Mrs. Woodburn and Dugan are workers for Reubin Askew's campaign. What they are finding is confirmed in similar surveys taken by Gary Hart, Alan Cranston, and other Democratic candidates here. The number of undecided voters is reported at 40 percent, 50 percent, and even 60 to 65 percent, with barely a month left in the campaign.
Despite Mr. Mondale's powerful organization here, despite his high name recognition, despite his solid lead in the polls, most voters are hanging back, still picking and choosing among the eight major contenders.
That could be potential trouble for Mondale. And it's sending a ripple of excitement through the other campaigns, where each candidate still hopes for a surprise finish.
The other campaigners are not kidding themselves, however.
''If the 135,000 Democratic voters in New Hampshire were forced to walk into a polling booth today, Walter Mondale would win overwhelmingly,'' says Phil Grandmaison, state coordinator for Alan Cranston. ''But many of the campaigns are just beginning to send a message to the voters,'' he adds.
Until now, Mr. Grandmaison says, the New Hampshire campaign has really involved only the 2,000 to 3,000 activists in the Democratic Party here. They are people won over by Mondale's persistent campaigning ever since he was part of the Carter White House. And their strong support for Mondale gives the state the appearance of a greater Mondale tilt than really exists, Grandmaison says.
Gerard Morris, a John Glenn aide here, puts it even more bluntly.
''Walter Mondale has been campaigning here for three years,'' he says. ''If there are really as many undecided voters as they say, then that's a signal the voters don't like what they know about the front-runner.''
Privately, political strategists here still expect Mondale to win the primary handily. But several planners suggest the large number of undecided voters could result in John Glenn's finishing a very close second behind Mondale - a finish that could provide a big boost for the Ohio senator. There could also be another surprise for third place, with both Reubin Askew and Gary Hart seen gaining here recently.
The telephone surveys and door-to-door canvasses in Manchester, Concord, Franklin, and other cities in the state are finding something else.Even among those who favor Mondale, many are only weak supporters - people who say they would be willing to switch if they saw someone more attractive.
To back that up, Mike Fernandez, an aide to Ernest Hollings, quotes a Boston Globe poll that found last month that 45 percent of Mondale's supporters in New Hampshire said there was a fair-to-very-good chance that they would switch to another candidate before that state's primary day. In another Globe poll, this one of Massachusetts voters, 56 percent of Mondale's supporters said they might switch.
Analysts say this indicates that Mondale lacks hard-core support - a problem that shows up dramatically when Mondale is pitted in nationwide trial heats with President Reagan. In a Gallup poll released this week, Reagan defeats Mondale 51 percent to 44 percent. But in terms of ''strong'' support - those who feel intensely about their choice between the two men - Reagan trounces Mondale 32 to 16.
What is Mondale's problem with some New Hampshire voters? A dozen ''undecided'' voters interviewed by this reporter here this week gave a variety of reasons for holding back their support from Mondale. A young woman from Concord said he seemed to make ''too many promises.'' Another woman in that city said he seemed the ''captive'' of big labor. A blue-collar worker in Manchester said Mondale ''never takes a clear stand on hard issues.'' In most cases, the general concern seemed to be that Mondale lacked the independence and tough-mindedness they wanted.
What all of this indicates, say analysts, is that Mondale is failing to excite a large segment of the voters, either here in New Hampshire or across the country. And that is pumping some fresh enthusiasm into the other campaigns here.