Mondale losing issues and image battles

California. Oregon. Washington. These were to be Walter Mondale's upset states - snatched from the Republicans right in the heart of Reagan country. Now all three may be out of reach for the Mondale ticket.

What is going wrong for Mr. Mondale? Why is he falling even further back in the polls - not just here in the West, but across the country?

Those were the questions being asked during the past few days aboard the two Boeing 727 jets carrying Mondale, his staff, and scores of reporters up the Pacific Coast.

Political analysts sum up the problems of the Democratic ticket this way:

* Mondale is clearly losing the ''issues battle,'' despite his efforts to turn public attention to things like the nuclear arms race, social security, and fairness to women.

* Ronald Reagan is winning the ''image battle,'' where he has always been strong.

Issues and image are both pivotal in a presidential race. From the beginning, Mondale's advisers felt his best opportunity was with issues. But Mondale's efforts to excite a majority of American voters about his own key issues have, so far, been unsuccessful.

One expert who has attempted to analyze this battle over issues is John E. Merriam, publisher of Issues Management Letter.

Mr. Merriam has used computers to track some of the issues that have been central to Mondale's campaign, including ''fairness'' and disarmament.

Merriam finds the amount of media coverage on the fairness issue - fairness to women and fairness to minorities - has steadily declined since midsummer.

In July, when the Mondale-Ferraro ticket briefly pulled even with the Reagan-Bush ticket in the Gallup polls, TV and newspapers were giving extensive coverage to the fairness issue. About 41/2 percent of all news coverage dealt with that single subject, which Mondale considers so important.

But by October, media interest in the fairness issue had just about vanished. Coverage on CBS, NBC, and ABC, and in major newspapers and magazines was less than one-tenth as extensive as it had been three months earlier.

This has been devastating to Mondale's hopes. He told reporters this week in San Francisco: ''All during this campaign, I've tried to make the issue of fairness toward the American people a central matter for the November elections.''

Likewise, media coverage of nuclear disarmament peaked in late July. By October, only one-third as much space and time was being devoted to nuclear disarmament by the press and TV as during the summer.

Whose fault is this? Certainly it reflects, to a certain extent, the deftness of the White House in shaping the 1984 campaign.

The nuclear issue didn't simply fade away as the chief foreign policy issue. It was replaced by a focus on US-Soviet relations - specifically by President Reagan's conciliatory speech at the United Nations and his meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

Reagan, using the advantages of his office, grabbed the media spotlight and managed to upstage Mondale and the nuclear issue.

The media do not shape the issues, Mr. Merriam suggests. More often they simply reflect public interest and public reactions to the major candidates. Mondale failed to win the war for public attention. As a result, reporters and TV commentators moved away from discussions of his primary agenda.

There was another overall problem for Mondale. As the campaign progressed, coverage of the Reagan-Mondale fray shifted more and more from issues to image.

Issues coverage of the Mondale campaign peaked at 42 percent of all stories one week in September, Merriam observes. By mid-October, issues coverage totaled only 14 percent of the news reports on the campaign.

That's exactly what the Reagan campaign hoped would happen, Merriam says. He notes that it takes months to change public perceptions of a candidate's image. Mondale has little chance of damaging Reagan image, or enhancing his own, in a big way with so little time remaining. Yet the Reagan campaign managed to turn media attention toward image-type stories.

A senior adviser traveling here with Mondale grumbles about the media's fascination with image over issues.

But the adviser concedes that for weeks, Mondale tried out one issue after another in an effort to find the President's greatest weaknesses.

Another senior adviser accompanying Mondale through the West suggests that the country is ''weary'' of politics after the years of Vietnam and Watergate. The public knows things aren't perfect, this adviser says. They know there could be some serious problems ahead. But right now things aren't too bad, and they would prefer not to think about the future.

(Public opinion polls Monday showed Reagan holding a nationwide lead that ranges from 17 percent to 23 percent over Mondale. According to a National Public Radio poll conducted by Louis Harris, Reagan holds a 58-percent-to-41 -percent advantage. USA Today reported Reagan's lead at 59 percent to 36 percent over Mondale.)

Mondale may not be getting the press and TV coverage he wants on issues. But Merriam's studies indicate that in other ways the press has turned more positive on Mondale, even as his political prospects began to look worse.

Earlier, back in August and September, the Mondale-Ferraro ticket had taken a beating from the media. Most of this negative reporting was related to Geraldine A. Ferraro and her problems with unpaid federal taxes and other matters.

In the past few weeks, the negative reporting has subsided and total reporting on the Mondale-Ferraro ticket has become generally positive, Merriam's studies show.

Meanwhile, reporting on the Reagan-Bush ticket, which had been generally neutral, has soured since September. Much of this unfavorable reporting was related to off-color comments by Vice- President George Bush and his staff.

The effect of this negative tilt toward the Republicans, however, is not expected to be very great, Merriam says. It comes too late and is being offset by a TV-advertising blitz by the Republicans.

At its worst, the negative reporting on Reagan-Bush could turn a major landslide into a minor one, Merriam suggests.

Merriam, whose biweekly newsletter probes media coverage of the issues, offers one further thought on Mondale's handling of his campaign:

Mondale has often failed to capitalize on issues - such as terrorism - which the press and the public have shown a keen interest in.

At the same time, Mondale has hammered over and over at an issue like federal budget deficits. That issue, Merriam's studies show, ranks down around 12th in importance, along with things like South Africa and health costs, in the public consciousness.

Mondale should have narrowed his aim and fired at the top issues of public concern, Merriam says, adding:

''How many issues do you think the public can handle at one time?''

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