While Walter Mondale seems to be going nowhere very fast, Sen. Edward Kennedy is moving all over the United States in a highly potent political effort. He's speaking on behalf of the Democratic presidential candidate. How much this is helping Mr. Mondale is a question. But the charismatic Massachusetts senator is a great crowd pleaser, thus helping local Democratic candidates wherever he appears. And, not least, he is helping himself.
A friend of Mr. Kennedy's said flatly, after a meeting with Ted: ''He's running for president in 1988. No doubt about it.'' Another old friend put it this way: ''He's obviously positioning himself so he can run in 1988.''
This is not to say that Kennedy isn't giving his all for Mondale. He is. He and Mondale seem to have a relationship that apparently withstood the 1980 primary, when Fritz was saying less than nice things about Ted. Since then Mondale reached out to Kennedy to try to end that rift. It appears they have buried the hatchet.
But when one of these friends was asked whether Ted wouldn't rather - for 1988 - have Ronald Reagan finishing up his time in the presidency than Mondale seeking a second term, he said nothing: He just winked. Again I asked: ''Isn't Kennedy just as happy that someone else is taking on Reagan this time and not himself?'' Another wink.
Actually, it is not a ''given'' that Kennedy is getting ready to run in 1988. Kennedy would know, as another friend pointed out, that ''there would be lingering negatives from Chappaquiddick.'' ''Further,'' that source said, ''Kennedy may just not be as hungry as he used to be. In many ways he seems to be finding more and more satisfaction out of being a highly influential senator.''
Kennedy isn't about to jump into a fray where he's likely to be embarrassed by, say, a Gary Hart in the primaries. He'll want assurances that the Democratic rank and file, as well as party leaders, is ready to turn to him as its new national leader.
Having said all this, one must quickly add: What a ''positioning'' Kennedy is putting together today for '88!
Beyond the stumping tour from coast to coast, there's Kennedy's political-action committee, the Fund for a Democratic Majority, which is directed now by his highly regarded press secretary and speech writer, Robert Shrum. This committee raised $2.8 million that was used to help Democratic candidates around the country in 1982 and will also help those running this year.
Kennedy is a very complicated person. His pragmatic, political side is the one the public sees the most. But he is - or seems to have become - a dedicated ideologue, whose interest in what are known as compassionate causes is sincere and intense.
People talking with Kennedy these days are saying that the senator is troubled over what a Reagan victory might do to these causes and to social programs in general. Thus, his heavy, hardworking involvement in this campaign is directed, he says, at trying to keep a Reagan victory from being so large, and his coattails so effective, that a Reagan-leaning Congress will be elected - one that will be much less attentive to liberal desires.
Kennedy, too, is quite concerned about the likelihood that a reelected Reagan would be able, through appointments, to give a conservative coloration to the Supreme Court for years to come.
But Kennedy is a realist. He can read polls and knows that Reagan, barring what are called ''political miracles,'' will probably be reelected. So he is out on the hustings to save House and Senate seats for Democrats.
Having thrown in all the qualifications - the ifs and buts - this reporter, who has been following the Kennedy saga closely through the years, would say that the senator will probably be in the thick of the fight for the presidency next time around.
Kennedy's far-flung speaking engagements are reminding Democrats everywhere that he's still around. And his PAC committee is making a lot of powerful political friends for Kennedy - politicians and officeholders who will probably leap at the chance to help him win the presidency - should he but gently ask.