Walter Mondale has serious campaign problems. Just about everybody knows it by now. The problems are both large and small. But they add up to one thing. He's far behind President Reagan, and he's not catching up.
Now some senior Democrats, veterans such as Robert Strauss, Clark Clifford, and others who have experience in many of these races, are riding to the rescue.
It may be too late. But as Mr. Strauss told some reporters over breakfast here on Thursday, Mr. Mondale needs a new strategy - one that can give him a quick breakthrough.
Said Strauss: ''My judgment is, if Mondale tries to grind it out a few inches at a time, he can't get there....
''The polls don't disturb me that much,'' said Strauss. ''What disturbs me is what you are doing to change the polls.... Fifteen, 16, 17, 14 points - that disappears pretty fast once (a campaign) starts rolling. But what you have to worry about is what you are going to do to change it.''
Reporters traveling with the Mondale campaign this week were not surprised to see the candidate reach out for help. It wasn't a great week by anyone's measure , including some of those close to Mondale.
At Mondale's kickoff parade on Labor Day, reporters were taken to the parade route early and warned in a written memo not to lose their positions because of the huge crowds that were expected. In fact, the reporters and police on hand almost outnumbered the crowd.
That afternoon, Mondale delivered his major kickoff speech. No advanced texts were supplied, so that written stories in afternoon papers and radio reports most of the day focused on the negative aspects of the earlier parade.
That evening, Mondale jetted into California to be greeted by a crowd of perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 supporters. President Reagan had drawn an estimated 69, 000 the same day a few miles away. To make matters worse, after Mondale got a series of rousing introductions, the microphone failed when he started to speak. Then when it was finally fixed, someone in the crowd fainted, and the speech was again interrupted.
None of this would be important if other things were going well. However, Mondale so far has failed to turn this campaign into anything more than a referendum on Mr. Reagan - a man that even Democratic leaders admit is well liked by the American people.
Strauss told reporters that Jim Johnson, the Mondale campaign chairman, came to him on Wednesday with a request that Strauss put together a group of about a dozen Democratic pros. They are to meet regularly with Mr. Johnson, and with the candidate as well on weekends when he is in Washington.
Among people whom Strauss says he will try to recruit are Robert Keefe, Harry C. McPherson Jr., Loyd Hackler, Anne Wexler, Vernon Jordon, Harold Brown, Pamela Harriman, John White, James Schlesinger, Lane Kirkland - ''that kind of group.'' None has yet been approached.
Looking at the campaign, Strauss said: ''I don't think Fritz has to change his style. I think he has to change his campaign techniques some and improve them dramatically, and he knows that.''
Among the specifics, Strauss said Mondale must find ways to work better with both the pencil press and with TV. And Mondale must improve his reaction-time to events. Beyond that, however, Strauss would not elaborate on what he plans to suggest.
How important is this new group? ''It is a major and dramatic change in the campaign,'' Strauss suggests.