Walter Mondale's reputation for overcaution won't be the same after his choice of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro for running mate. But more important, neither will the long-muted aspirations of women and others, such as Hispanics and blacks, who have waited to advance toward acceptance on a major party's national ticket, ever be the same again. Nominating a woman for vice-president next week in San Francisco would mark a historic break in the formerly solid ranks of white males.
With the choice, Mondale shuts down the clamor that had been building over the choice of a running mate and drowning out his candidacy even before it got launched.
Ms. Ferraro will face tough scrutiny after the initial gush of publicity over her nomination. Her views on everything from family and ambition to federal deficits and arms control will be examined. And how she handles the spotlight will be watched more closely than if she were a man. This might not be fair. But it's the special burden that goes with the honor of being first in any field. And it's Ms. Ferraro's, and Mondale's, greatest risk.
Rep. Ferraro will help Mondale secure his links with the House of Representatives, the seat of Democratic power in Washington. She was already the choice of House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. She was being groomed for higher things. She was named secretary of the House Democratic Caucus and was appointed to the Budget Committee, both coveted posts. As chairman of the Democratic Platform Committee, an operation brought under Mondale's control, Rep. Ferraro should be up to speed on Mondale's positions on most issues.
For the Democratic ticket, Rep. Ferraro will help balance Mondale's Nordic Midwesternism with a hard-bitten East Coast ethnicity. They say Rep. Ferraro's congressional district in Queens is Archie Bunker territory - no place for effete liberals. It went for Reagan in 1980. Rep. Ferraro's urban orientation, her background as an assistant district attorney with its law-and-order overtones, could help the Democrats in the industrial crescent from New Jersey across the Great Lakes, where Jewish and Italian voters, and other ethnic groups , have been trending Republican. Similarly, she could help Mondale on the West Coast.
For the party generally, the Ferraro appointment could help restore the Democrats' progressive image, particularly among young people. Early adulthood is the time when lifelong political allegiances tend to be imprinted. In this Reagan era, the imprint on youth has turned notably Republican.
It's hard to see how Ms. Ferraro will help Mondale much in the South. One could assume her presence on the ticket will create enthusiasm among women voters. But whether this will more than offset a loss among men generally, and among some women, is arguable. Surveys so far have suggested the net effect of a woman on the ticket would be a draw. A lot has to depend on the performance of the woman herself. We'll have a far better idea about all this in November.
The Democrats must still settle a few things next week in San Francisco. Challengers Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson have yet to have their last hurrah.
But this is the time to pause over Ms. Ferraro's moment, and the opening it clears for others in the waiting room of political responsibility.