Walter Mondale's problem at the moment is not the dearth or abundance of acceptable running mates, male or female. It is to define the identity of his party and decide how to shape a campaign against Ronald Reagan.This should be kept in mind even as the parade of vice-presidential prospects files up the drive to his suburban St. Paul, Minn., home.
Mondale may be feeling crowded by time.
Women activists warn that he must choose either Gary Hart or a woman, or else risk a convention floor fight from women who felt their expectations had been falsely raised. For a candidate already troubled by an image of closeness to special interests, the last thing Mondale needs is to appear to cave in to one such group's demands, be they labor's, minorities', or women's demands.
We continue to like the idea of a woman vice-presidential nominee, in either party, in this or any future election. But the choice of a woman should be made on the basis of her qualifications to assist the president and possibly assume the Oval Office herself during his term - as nine vice-presidents in the past have had to do.
In 1984 the Democratic nominee has a somewhat different challenge than did the past two nonincumbent campaigners. Carter in 1976 could use the vice-presidential processional to Plains, Ga., as a way to build ties to the party; Mondale in contrast already is the quintessential party establishment man. Reagan in 1980 had his political base so securely tied up that he could afford to dally with the Gerald Ford vice-presidential balloon right up to the midnight hour of decision before settling for George Bush.
No one would argue that the choice of Mondale in 1976 or Bush in 1980 wrapped up the election for the ticket. That is why the who of Mondale's choice is not seen to be as crucial as what it says about Mondale himself. We would add another point: It will tell what he thinks about the Democratic Party's identity and the basic election question in November.
The Democrats are as divided today as when the primaries, last winter, first showed the party split between Mondale-Establishment, Hart-Yuppy, Jackson-minority factions.
Mondale's first decision is what to do about Hart. Hart has the first claim on the No. 2 spot, for the obvious reason that he placed a strong second in the race.
Any GOP hopes of using Hart's primary attacks on Mondale as grist for a campaign against the duo on a Democratic ticket should be taken with a grain of salt; Carter failed to get much mileage out of Bush's ''voodoo economics'' tag for Reagan's proposals in 1980, precisely because Bush was on the ticket. Hart would help the ticket with voters under 40 - precisely the group where Republicans have been focusing their efforts.
If for reasons of personal chemistry Hart were unacceptable, there are other men whose selection should not be seen as an offense to women - the conservative Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the more liberal Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, to mention just two who could help Mondale out in the South. Then there's Mario Cuomo, governor of New York, who already seems to have been given the consolation prize of keynoter.
This is a choice Mondale will likely have to make himself. Turning it over to the convention would look like shrinking from the job. Letting the choice wait until the convention itself runs the risk of a tempest on the convention floor.
The Democratic Party is itself in the midst of change. To younger voters economic issues have greater importance than social issues. Women want access to economic opportunity, recognition of their abilities and needs. The November electorate appears to want to look ahead rather than dwell on the battles or achievements of the past.
The primaries have failed to resolve in what direction the Democrats are headed, and how this direction contrasts with four more years of Reaganism. It is these questions, not whether it's time to bury the Hart hatchet or to choose a woman, that Mondale's vice-presidential choice should help answer.