Walter Mondale Comes Out Fighting

updated 08/08/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There is no questioning his stature in American government. For nearly 20 years he helped define the liberal agenda in the United States, first as a Senator and finally as an unusually strong Vice-President. But now Walter F. Mondale is standing shin-deep in water in a rice paddy 10 miles down the road from Jonesboro, Ark. The pants of his blue suit are tucked into rubber boots, and a few dozen locals have come to gawk at him. The Chief Deputy Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives stands in the muck on one side, a rice farmer on the other. Somebody hands Mondale a long-handled shovel and he jokingly demands, "What is this thing?" while a half dozen cameras record the quizzical look on his face. This is how votes are won, and by enduring almost two years of moments like this, Walter Mondale hopes to be elected President of the U.S.

Such scenes are the nightmare of every Democrat aching to succeed Ronald Reagan, and this campaign is longer, more physically, intellectually and emotionally taxing than any the nation has known. For Mondale, the stakes are especially high. Almost from the day he and Jimmy Carter went down to defeat in 1980, he has been the front-runner for the 1984 Democratic nomination. Last year the experts tagged him as invincible, saying he was too well-organized, had raised too much money, was too popular with the party faithful, for anyone to beat him. But this summer, with John Glenn starting to come out on top in some polls, some party leaders are reportedly ready to desert Mondale. All this six months before the first primary and more than a year before the election. "When I heard that Maggie Thatcher had called an election and they voted 30 days later," says Mondale, "boy, I was jealous."

Win or lose, Mondale, at 55, is pouring his heart into this campaign. He dropped out of the 1975 Presidential race with the explanation that he couldn't stomach a year of living in Holiday Inns. Others acclaimed his decision as proof that he was the sanest politician in America. "I was, but I got over it," he says. Gone is Walter the understated, the soul of Nordic cool. He still says he wants the campaign to be civilized, but he lashes out at Reagan like Cotton Mather attacking adultery. Now frenzy is his life-style.

On one swing last month, Thursday morning found him in Detroit, addressing the Democratic National Committee. That afternoon he greeted supporters in Little Rock; the day ended in New Orleans, where he addressed the NAACP the next morning before flying back to Arkansas; then on to Clinton, Iowa and two stops in Missouri. Sunday covered St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago. "You've got to have a candidate who can stand up and slug it out," he told the NAACP, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he looks like a man spoiling for a fight. "The last time they wouldn't even let my opponent debate me," Mondale says of 1980. "They hid old Bush in the sub-basement. This time we're going to have a debate. We're going to get on the question of what the Reagan Administration has done to our economy and what they've done to our young and our elderly and women and minorities and what they're doing around the world."

Mondale takes his message on the road up to a week at a time (wife Joan campaigns separately, and they meet on the road or at home a few days a week). He pushes himself through punishing schedules and spends the hours when he isn't politicking immersed in briefing books or speaking to the press. This fall the three Mondale children will probably join the fray—setting a pace candidates used to adopt only in the final weeks of a campaign. (Ted, 25, will get his degree in history from the University of Minnesota this summer; Eleanor, 22, works for an L.A. public relations firm; William, 21, is a history senior at Brown.)

On a day of routine stops, Mondale's delivery can be perfunctory, uninspired, almost mechanical. But when he rises to his topic and his audience, he is compelling. "When people are hungry; when people are poor; when people are in profound need—THAT'S WHAT A GOVERNMENT'S FOR!" he shouted to the Democrats in Detroit. Listening to the little catch in that flat Midwestern voice as it swells in down-home sincerity to a final crescendo, a listener can almost hear Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In sympathetic surroundings his fervor grows. He was led to the podium at the NAACP meeting to an organ accompaniment, fortissimo, of Battle Hymn of the Republic and his introducer called him "a lover of justice, a friend of human and civil rights." Mondale repaid his hosts with a riveting sermon that conveyed all the exuberance of his mentor, Hubert Humphrey, with none of his long-windedness. "I want to restore a nation in which we care for one another," Mondale thundered. "Let us restore a people's President to the White House."

If the election had been held at the NAACP convention—and probably even at the Democratic National Committee meeting—Mondale would have been a shoo-in. But if former Vice-Presidents or impassioned liberals had an inside track to the Presidency, Aaron Burr and Hubert Humphrey would have their portraits in the White House today. Beyond the Democratic traditionalists, Mondale faces an uphill fight. "There is no firm basis for his support," says Douglas Schoen, pollster for political consultant David Garth. "Mondale's support is largely based on name recognition; as other candidates become well-known—particularly John Glenn—Mondale's support becomes soft." Schoen's nationwide poll last month showed that, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson siphoning off black votes, Glenn is ahead of Mondale among Democratic voters. The candidate discounts the numbers: "These polls now are bouncing around like a drunken basketball," he says.

In his chartered Beechcraft, crossing the night sky from Jonesboro to Clinton, Mondale assesses himself—and false modesty is absent. "I'm at the height of my powers," he avers, savoring Chivas and soda and one of the cigars his aides take pains to conceal from photographers. "I'm among a handful of Americans who are qualified by experience to understand and run this government. After the defeat in 1980, I knew I had to do it; I knew if I didn't, I'd kick myself around the rest of my life." In private he shows none of the apparent uncertainty that plagued Jimmy Carter. Although he will never publicly disavow Carter, he is not above citing the former President's memoirs, which detail Mondale's disagreements with Carter on subjects like the Soviet grain embargo. Mondale and Carter do share one common trait: religious conviction. A Methodist preacher's son, Mondale is almost as reserved on the subject of belief as Carter was wordy, but his moral convictions flavor his speeches. Nuclear weapons, when he mentions them, are always "Godawful." Words like "caring" and "compassion" fly to his lips. "I have a deep-rooted Christian faith," he allows. "I believe that every child is a child of God."

But the politics of caring may not be the politics of 1984. In Little Rock, where Mondale bore down on unemployment and the plight of farmers, education and civil rights, he was talking to men in tailored suits and tasseled calfskin loafers, and women in crisp designer dresses and leather pumps, not the polyester outfits of labor union Democrats in the industrial Northeast and Midwest. Members of the new Democratic elite around the country nowadays look more like Republicans than New Deal Democrats. Mondale himself has spent the last two years as a lawyer in the Washington office of a high-powered Chicago law firm; with his dark wool suits—even the pocket linings are pin-striped—he looks as affluent as he now is.

In his programs this year, Mondale has mixed his classic liberalism with some high-tech ideas and a trade policy that resembles vintage Republican philosophy. He has no specific legislative programs yet, but pledges to cut the federal deficit while aiding the underprivileged and rescinding Reagan cutbacks in social services. He argues that the nation must rebuild its industry and its research universities—both themes closely identified with John Glenn, his major moderate opponent. And when he talks about retaliating with high tariffs against countries that dump cheap goods on the American market, he sounds a theme more closely identified with the GOP of an earlier date.

Then there are the Republicans themselves. Lyn Nofziger, Ronald Reagan's political adviser in 1980, is eager to see his party get its shot at Mondale. "We should go after Mondale as the weak Vice-President of a weak President," Nofziger says. "He's a guy who's been all over the lot—a liberal in the Senate, a Carterite Vice-President, whatever that means—and now he's trying to move to the middle." Mondale bristles at such criticism. "I have a deeply held set of beliefs that I've carried with me through all my public life," he insists. But Reagan, or some other Republican nominee, will force Mondale to defend his record ad infinitum next year if he does get the Democratic nod.

The first Presidential primary may be in New Hampshire in February, or it may be in Vermont or Maine. The states are still squabbling among themselves. So unsettled is this Long Campaign that not even the contestants know yet where their battles will be joined. But regardless of who is ahead in the polls—Glenn or Cranston, or even Hart, Hollings or Askew—Walter Mondale will be there, preaching his version of the old liberal faith. "I am finally ready to lead the fight," he told the NAACP. All that remains is to find out whether America is ready to follow him.

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