Despite his apparent lack of political influence on the floor of the San Francisco Democratic convention, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington could yet prove to be one of the most critically powerful allies of presidential nominee Walter Mondale.
Mayor Washington's ability to increase the turnout and deliver Chicago's black vote could be crucial in swinging Illinois's 24 electoral votes into the Democratic camp.
And the Chicago mayor, who became something of a national hero to blacks across the country after his 1983 election triumph, is in a key position to pump the fires of enthusiasm for Mondale among black voters elsewhere.
It has been 20 years since Illinois handed its package of electoral votes to a Democratic presidential nominee. And political experts here say Chicago's black vote is critical in the margin of loss or victory in 1984.
Turnout rather than party preference is the issue. In the last two elections the Carter-Mondale ticket got more than 92 percent of the city's black vote. President Reagan is expected to win more than half of Chicago's ethnic wards, but no more than 6 to 9 percent of the city's black vote this year.
Mayor Washington is committed to a major local voter-registration effort. But veteran political analysts say its goal - 30,000 new voters - is high and that Democrats would do well to get anywhere near that figure. Although 100,000 new Chicago voters have been added to the rolls here in recent years, analysts stress it is the result of a long series of registration drives.
The degree of Mayor Washington's enthusiasm for Mr. Mondale's candidacy - an issue long clouded by local Democratic Party divisions here - could prove the critical factor in both the registration drive and the election turnout.
Cook County Democratic Party chairman Edward Vrdolyak, the leader of the 29 -member City Council majority that opposes the mayor on many issues, in effect stole the city's Democratic thunder by offering Mondale an endorsement early on. The mayor remained neutral and eventually followed his favorite-son delegates in voting for the Rev. Jesse Jackson at San Francisco.
Though the mayor is now firmly committed to Mondale and reportedly favored him from the start, the Mondale camp has tended to lean more toward Mr. Vrdolyak and his allies. In San Francisco it was the latter group, for instance, that handed out the passes that mayoral chief of staff William Ware says allowed Vdrolyak and others to ''swagger around the floor with bodyguards'' while the mayor was kept from even having a key staff member or two on the floor with him.
''Generally, credentials are passed out on some sort of fair, rational basis, '' Mr. Ware says, ''but some people in the regular Democratic organization used this to carry out a personal vendetta. It was outrageous.''
Mayor Washington, like Jesse Jackson, has been trying to make the most of his political leverage. Joseph Gardner, the mayor's political director, has told the Mondale camp that if the mayor is given the major voice in local federal appointments, the Democratic nominee can expect an all-out effort by the mayor on the candidate's behalf. Commenting on the status of that push, Tom Sharpe of Mr. Gardner's office says, ''Nothing has been resolved in terms of a working relationship.'' Most political analysts here say such rewards are more likely to be made after a smashing victory than promised before an election.
And it can be argued that Mondale has more to gain than to lose by the split in Chicago's Democratic Party.
''In some ways Mondale has the best of all possible worlds - he's got them in competition with each other,'' says political scientist William J. Grimshaw of the Illinois Institute of Technology. ''Washington is sort of boxed in. If he doesn't do anything, it's a guarantee he'll get nothing. He's forced to get a good turnout to demonstrate to Mondale that he's effective.''
''Obviously the more enthusiasm Washington shows, the more response (from voters) he'll get,'' notes Chicago political consultant Don Rose. ''I expect to see him moving forward vigorously ... and campaigning for Mondale. Washington has always had a 'big picture' perspective. One reason he was in a bind for Jackson was that he really wanted to be for Mondale.''
Mayor Washington's performance in San Francisco - from his angry putdown of CBS-TV reporter Ed Bradley to the poor timing of his bid to include a jobs plank in the party platform - may well have damaged his reputation nationally. But to many voters here, he is still admired as the reform mayor fighting the entrenched political machine.
''I think the convention was a serious public relations setback for him,'' says Mr. Rose. ''But it hasn't damaged his (standing with his) constituency here or his reelection potential, which is very high.''
And it is this power with the voters that the mayor could effectively wield to Mondale's advantage this fall. ''I think Reagan is going to be awfully difficult to beat in the white ethnic communities,'' says Dr. Grimshaw. ''The likelihood of a Democrat carrying Illinois is slight in any event. And the only way it's going to happen is with a substantial black turnout.''