Fritz Mondale, the Democratic front-runner, is somewhat of a stranger in California, as he is throughout much of the United States. Jack Nelson, Los Angeles Times' Washington Bureau chief, puts this Mondale problem most aptly when he writes ''Mondale remains for many Americans a surprising ill-defined figure on the political landscape.''
Most people have heard of Mondale. Being vice-president for four years gave the Minnesotan a considerable amount of visibility. Thus, he is not ''Fritz who?''
But there is a fuzziness about Mondale's image. He may have the Democratic nomination nailed down, but he has a long way to go to acquire the kind of clear-cut public image he must have to win the presidency. Picking up endorsements from interest groups won't take him far toward getting better known by the public at large.
Carter was ''Jimmy who?'' at this stage in his first presidential compaign. But very soon Carter's name was on almost very tongue. The unassuming sounding southerner who assured everyone he was bent on reshaping government became very quickly not only widely identifiable - but also a powerful political force.
He was the outsider who was to save the people from those Washington insiders. He was widely perceived as that very religious, highly moral, and therefore, unique politician who would lift the standards of cynical and often corrupt Washington. At first glance Carter looked and sounded bland. But when he turned on that wide smile, he was overpoweringly appealing. Beyond the smile there was a freshness to Carter's political rhetoric and views which caught the public's attention.
Mr. Mondale has yet to reach any particularly new, eye-catching heights in the way he states his political positions. So the question remains: Will he be able to break through the public perception that he is mostly taste-free porridge and become a persuasive campaigner who can command the kind of loyalty and enthusiastic support a winning presidential candidate must possess?
Carter as a campaigner in 1976 was audacious. He took on the Democratic establishment. He had harsh words about Lyndon Johnson's presidency. He even criticized that patron saint of many liberals, Hubert Humphrey. Sometimes he paid dearly for his willingness to speak his mind. But his daring paid off: he was soon perceived by voters as a candidate with political courage.
Mondale's image is of a candidate hunkering down, apparently seeking to avoid any costly political mistake. Jack Nelson notes this possible flaw in Mondale's campaign approach, calling him ''at once a passionately driven liberal activist and a profoundly cautious man.''
Carter also had the ability to tell people all about himself, even his inner thoughts. Sometimes he revealed too much, embarrassingly so. But a lot of people soon felt they knew and liked this former governor of Georgia who had been unknown until the beginning of the primaries.
But Mondale, while quite open and affable, seldom lets you know what goes on beneath the surface.
Walter Mondale knows his problem and is trying hard to find a way to become an exciting public figure with an electrifying campaign.
Some awfully good people fall short of being able to acomplish this breakthrough into the national public identification that must be the basis for a strong bid for the presidency. Muskie couldn't. Neither could Romney. Neither could Scoop Jackson. And one could go on and on in this vein.
Mondale has his work cut out for him. However, the Minnesotan is trying to put some distance between himself and Carter, the man who might be able to give him some good advice on how to get well known in a hurry.