Ronald Reagan's home state has seemed an improbable place from the beginning for the Mondale-Ferraro team to make a major stand. In fact, a month ago the tracking polls that Democratic strategists run here every night showed their man slipping so far behind President Reagan that the Mondale campaign thought hard about taking its money somewhere else.
But they decided to dig in. And this week, as the campaign escalates to full force here, Joe Trippi, the young politico managing the effort, finds reason for wary optimism.
Walter Mondale's opinion tracking polls show the Democrat steadily eroding Reagan's lead in California over the last couple weeks, according to Mr. Trippi. Opinion here has been ''extremely volatile,'' he says, giving him hope that Reagan's support is not rock-solid. ''People are going to be surprised how close this is going to be.''
Morale of staff members and volunteers in the field has picked up considerably over the last couple weeks, says Hank Barnard, the jeans-clad director of the Westside Voter Registration Committee in the Democratic stronghold of Santa Monica. Their spirits had hit an all-time low after Geraldine A. Ferraro's finances came under scrutiny in August, he said.
Here in Santa Monica, many of the people who are registering as Democrats here express the view that President Reagan reflects the interests of an elite rather than poor and middle-class Americans.
Margot Bryan, a young gemologist who voted for Reagan in 1980, switched to the Democratic Party last week, saying of Mondale and Ferraro: ''I just really feel they're for the people. I felt that way about Reagan four years ago.'' But now, she continues, ''I think he's out of control. ... All he cares about is his elite group of people.''
But longtime Democratic volunteers note even here in Santa Monica that college students and other young voters are no longer the Democratic bloc they once were.
No one is claiming that California's 47 electoral votes are likely prospects for the Mondale column, but then Mondale is running closer here than in Texas or Florida, the other big Sunbelt prizes.
So Mondale is spending more money on television commercials for California than anywhere else in the country, and the state runs neck and neck with Texas in gobbling up other campaign monies.
With so much ground to make up in the remaining month of campaigning, Trippi has pared Mondale's strategy for staging an upset here down to several narrowly focused efforts. ''If we fail at any one of those efforts,'' he says, ''we'll lose. But we're getting more and more confident that we'll succeed.''
The gist of the Trippi's ''on the ground'' (nontelevision) campaign strategy is to isolate small segments of the California electorate and ''work very hard on them.''
The first phase, which just came to an end, has been to go into heavily Democratic areas and register as many voters as possible before today's deadline.
The second phase begins now. The Mondale camp will attempt to reach, with absentee ballots, what some are calling ''lazy Democrats.'' Trippi has a list of 1.7 million California Democrats who are registered to vote but stayed home for the last two elections. As many as possible of these names will be contacted by phone and through door-to-door visits by Democratic staffers and volunteers around the state.
This is a 20-day drive that will end Oct. 26, when the Democrats will mount a general get-out-the-vote campaign.
Throughout the remaining month of the campaign, the Mondale team will be working to win over moderates, both Democrats and Republicans, who are currently leaning toward Reagan. This effort will be focused on about nine areas of the state where Trippi thinks Reagan falls to the right of moderates on key issues - especially environmental issues.
The key here, he explains, will be to focus voter attention on these issues in a race that so far has turned on the candidates' personalities.
Apart from television commercials and targeted mailings, this part of the campaign will depend heavily on campaign appearances. Mr. Mondale and Ms. Ferraro themselves will be scheduled to reach this group of voters, as will Gary Hart and John Anderson, who are headed for California this month.
Democrats were outdone in the voter-registration phase of the California campaign. While almost 248,000 new Democrats registered between May 7 and Sept. 7, Republicans added more than 312,000 new voters to their ranks in that time.
Now Hank Barnard at Westside Voter Registration is busy switching from a registration network to a phoning and precinct-walking network to reach the ''lazy Democrats.'' With the roughly 380 volunteers he has mustered in the last two election campaigns, he figures to be able to hit nearly every Westside person on Trippi's list who hasn't moved or passed away.