Walter Mondale's choice of a woman running mate adds a burst of excitement and drama to the Democratic ticket - but it also represents a high-risk course in the race against President Reagan.
Picking Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York to stand at his side will do more than rally America's feminists to the aid of Mr. Mondale. It could very well strengthen Democratic prospects in the industrial Northeast and Midwest, which is the base of his support. And it could improve Mondale's prospects with Roman Catholics and Americans of Italian descent - both major constituencies represented by Ms. Ferraro. It might also help in California, Oregon, and Washington State.
A number of experts, however, warn that Mondale has just sailed his campaign into uncharted political waters. There could be reefs and shallows ahead that no one has thought of. Public-opinion polls showing that a woman could help the ticket are considered unreliable guides to the campaign ahead.
Furthermore, there are some obvious dangers in the Ferraro decision, experts say.
Mondale's choice shatters the political tradition of an all-male team. But it also breaks with traditional political wisdom, which says that the vice-presidential choice should be used to expand the ticket's geographic as well as ideological appeal.
Experts note that Mondale needs more than his own native North to win in November. To reach the 270 electoral votes for victory, he must look to the South and West, especially to at least one of the three big-vote states in the Sunbelt - California, Texas, or Florida.
The impact out West is uncertain, but in the South it's probably a minus. Mondale had worked hard to develop Southern contacts and support, especially in the belt of states extending from Texas through Georgia. But Ms. Ferraro is an unknown there. Nor does she, as a liberal and protege of House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., expand the ticket's philosophical reach. Her choice does little to hold out a hand to moderates and conservatives, who are the backbone of the party's strength in the South.
One political analyst calls the Ferraro selection ''a short-term gain and a long-term loss'' for Mondale.
Another analyst, Stephen J. Wayne, author of ''The Road to the White House,'' sees mixed results from the Mondale decision.
''My reaction is that placing a member of Congress, such as Geraldine Ferraro . . . on the ticket is in part a sign that the time of women has come,'' he says. ''But it's also a sign of desperation'' by the Mondale campaign.
Why? It indicates, Dr. Wayne says, that the strategists around Mondale felt that the normal political calculations wouldn't work this year. Even with a traditional choice, such as Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the winning scenario couldn't be found. Senator Bentsen probably could have carried Texas for Mondale and solidified Democratic support in the South.
In choosing Ferraro, the Mondale campaign decided, in effect, to say: ''Let's deal the cards differently. Let's mix the deck up and see what happens, because no matter how we play at this point (by traditional rules) we lose,'' says Dr. Wayne. Ms. Ferraro could also help Mondale with younger voters, who have been moving toward Reagan recently.
A rather upbeat view is taken by Vic Fingerhut, a Washington-based political consultant who has worked for a number of Democratic candidates for Congress and the White House.
Mr. Fingerhut notes that normally the V-P choice makes no difference to a ticket, except in the state where the vice-presidential nominee comes from. But that could be different this time, he says.
Ms. Ferraro will be sure to draw intensive media coverage. In Democratic circles, she is known as tough, effective, and shrewd. If she handles the campaign well, she could become a powerful populist voice speaking out against the Reagan White House. The danger is that the ploy could backfire. Several Democratic insiders expressed concern that under tough questioning, Ms. Ferraro sometimes is combative - one calls her ''prickly'' - and this could hurt her when she is compared with her counterpart, Vice-President George Bush.
There are already signs that Republicans sense weakness in the Democratic ticket. Georgia GOP chairman Bob Bell issued a statement Thursday saying: ''We are looking forward to comparing the records of . . . Vice-President Bush and Geraldine Ferraro. The issue is not of gender, but of qualifications and experience.''
There is another concern as well. Democrats in Georgia and Massachusetts said that the choice could make it look as if Mondale were buckling under to pressure from the National Organization for Women. ''The NOW pressure . . . takes some of the luster off of it.'' says a Georgia Democrat who requested anonymity. ''It's such a blatant kind of thing. One has to ask, 'Would she have been a serious candidate if she were not a woman?' ''
In North Carolina, however, the concern was of a different sort. There, GOP Sen. Jesse Helms is locked in a frenzied struggle with Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. for the Senate. A shudder passed over the Hunt camp with Mondale's decision, which is expected to erode support for Democrats in North Carolina and across the South. Governor Hunt wanted someone who could help in the Deep South. Ms. Ferraro, it is felt, won't.