This is the year the gender gap will be tested. With an estimated 6 million more women than men expected to vote in November, many Democrats are counting on the historic Mondale-Ferraro ticket to spark interest in an uphill campaign and attract women voters.
Recent polls do indicate a tighter race than before Geraldine A. Ferraro was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee and before the Democratic National Convention. Republicans, too, are courting women, with such groups as the National Women's Coalition.
What difference Ms. Ferraro will make on the Democratic ticket will not be known until November. Right now, Democratic pragmatists are watching to see if Walter F. Mondale's choice will add momentum to voter-registration drives among women. And women candidates for local, state, and congressional seats - both Republican and Democratic - are wondering if they will be able to ride on the coattails of the Ferraro candidacy.
Few statistics are available, but comments from voter-registration groups and observers of women in politics say there has been a spurt of interest since Ferraro was selected. Indications are that there is a ''terrific energizing'' among women voters, says Kathy Kleeman, a research assistant at the Center for the American Woman and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Indeed, Ferraro's congressional office in Queens reports a deluge of mail from mothers, nuns, and working women. One Southern Baptist from Georgia writes that she had never been active in politics, but after she saw Ms. Ferraro's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, she intends to get involved.
''My cup runneth over with pride,'' she wrote.
Although the Ferraro staff notes it is also getting mail from men and from couples, it is the women voters whom the Democrats hope to attract with the selection of the six-year congressional veteran, who also includes lawyer, Italian-American, wife, and mother on her resume.
Kathy Wilson, chair of the National Women's Political Caucus, says Mr. Mondale has provided women's groups with a ''voter-registration project'' in terms of a real person.
Diana Herman, excutive director of the New Jersey League of Women Voters, is a little more cautious. She reports a large number of inquiries on voter registration, but adds that such interest is normally heightened during any presidential campaign.
There has been some hesitancy from black women over the Ferraro candidacy, as they watch to see how closely the Democratic Party will embrace blacks.
''Black women are certainly pleased at the fact that a woman was selected,'' says Julie Dade of the National Coalition for Black Voter Participation. But she adds that they hope neither the Republican or Democratic Parties takes black women for granted. Women make up 57 percent of the black vote, and voter-registration drives by black groups have been very successful this year.
There is enthusiasm among women candidates. Frances Farley, a Democrat who hopes to win a congressional seat in Utah's Second District, recalls the morning she heard about Ferraro's selection. She got a call from a Salt Lake City newspaper, asking whether it would help her candidacy.
''I told them I didn't think it would help or hurt,'' says Mrs. Farley, who has been a state senator. Later that morning she drove to the grocery store, where she found that people were really excited.
''They said, 'Isn't it wonderful?' Something had happened.'' By the time she arrived back home, Farley decided to call back the newspaper to tell them that Ferraro's candidacy would help her.
Margaret Weil, the Republican mayor of Gresham, Ore., is running for a state legislative seat. She hopes the selection of a woman vice-president will help her.
''What I think is exciting is that it does open doors,'' Mrs. Weil says. ''It makes it easier for all of us.''
Candidates and observers around the country point out that, in addition to the enthusiasm, a woman running for the vice-presidency will draw attention to women running for office in their own states. And they hope to capitalize on it.
''It's not going to hurt us,'' says a spokesman for Dudley Dudley, who is seeking a congressional seat in New Hampshire. Like other campaign staffers, he points out the issue of ''qualification'' is disappearing quickly.
There are about 600 women nominated for state legislative posts so far, according to the National Women's Education Fund (not all states have held their nominating primaries). This is up from 381 in 1974, 519 in 1980, and 579 in 1982 .
There are 48 women running for seats in either chamber of the US Congress. Of those, 19 Democrats and 22 Republicans are running for House seats. Four Democrats and three Republicans are running for US Senate.