Mr. Mondale's strategy

The Mondale presidential campaign picked up speed and began to take on an interesting sense of direction last week. Plainly, Mr. Mondale is aiming for the political center, particularly for those voters, right across the country, who were wooed away from traditional Democratic Party ties by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The selection of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as running mate, of Bert Lance to run the campaign, the careful distancing from the Rev. Jesse Jackson both during the platform-shaping process and during the vice-presidential selection process, and the decision to build the acceptance speech on ''family values'' and ''fairness'' all fit together.

The complaint of Jesse Jackson that he ''wasn't consulted'' about the vice-presidential selection was a key event of the week.

Mr. Mondale wants as much of the black vote as he can get, but he prefers to get it through and with such regular organization black leaders as Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles rather than in close association with the flamboyant and radical Mr. Jackson.

Before the week is out, Jackson may well be the forgotten man of the Democratic convention, along with whatever is left in the party of the other radical fringe movements which eight years ago dominated the convention and nominated George McGovern. Even Hubert Humphrey might feel uncomfortable in San Francisco this week. Mr. Mondale was his protege, but the campaign he is shaping bears no resemblance to those of his original patron.

Hubert Humphrey campaigned for the ''forgotten man,'' for the poor and lowly at the bottom of the economic pyramid, for the unemployed, the aged, and the alienated. ''Fritz'' Mondale can take the votes of those for granted. What he wants this year are the votes of the family man with a job, a little money in the bank, a house with a dangerously heavy mortgage threatened by rising interest rates, and children in Sunday school.

Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 by winning over large numbers of the working middle class throughout the country. He stressed ''family values.'' He championed ''school prayer'' and denounced abortion. It proved equally popular among Northern working Roman Catholics and Jews and Southern fundamentalist Protestant whites. Jimmy Carter had pulled the Democratic Party back toward center, but not far enough to head off the Reagan challenge when assisted by an Ayatollah Khomeini holding the hostages in Iran.

So Mr. Mondale picks a Roman Catholic from a working-class Italian immigrant background who happens to be a skillful professional politician, and also a woman, to be his running mate (to the astonishment of many, including this writer). And then he picks Bert Lance, a wealthy Southern banker, to run the campaign. And he deliberately keeps his distance from Jesse Jackson and anyone else who is even faintly tainted with the word radical.

The choice of Ms. Ferraro has surprised almost everyone. Few realized that Mr. Mondale could be so bold and imaginative. It has been criticized by few. It is not easy for anyone to criticize her solid, middle-of-the-road political record or the fact that her parents and she earned what they got the hard way.

Until this week I puzzled over how a politician as lacking in dramatic quality as Mr. Mondale could hope to wage an effective campaign. He has little of the qualities that made Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, or even Lyndon Johnson, effective campaigners. He certainly is no match as a performer for Ronald Reagan.

But does the presidential candidate necessarily have to be the star performer in an effective campaign? Is it possible that the presidential candidate just might put together a team of effective campaigners while he himself plays the role more of the coach or manager than of the star performer?

Mr. Mondale has picked a running mate who is getting more headlines than he himself, and might continue to do so. He has a campaign manager who is going to intrigue the press. Suppose he were to begin picking his Cabinet and sending its prospective members out on the campaign trail?

I begin to see that just possibly Mr. Reagan's skill as a performer might be balanced off, not by Mr. Mondale's quieter personality, but by a well-chosen cast as interesting as Ms. Ferraro and Bert Lance.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.