When private citizen Walter Mondale was driving home one night recently, a man in an expensive car spotted him, beeped the horn and rolled down his window. "He said, 'I know that there are a lot of rich people who want their taxes cut, and who want to stop helping people who need it. I want you to know that I am not one of them,' " recalls Mondale. Offering the story more like a lawyer's brief than a politician's rallying cry, Mondale says that before the man drove away, he yelled out, "Pour it on."

That's one microscopic indicator of the politics of 1982, what Mondale calls "the year of great debate." And as one of the Democratic party's senior spokesmen and a galvanizer for the battle of '84, he has moved steadily in the public eye: contributing to the debate, traveling for Democratic candidates, articulating the criticism of Ronald Reagan. While he watched last month's State of the Union address, he was stunned into silence by what his friends described as his "outrage that the president had hardly touched the economic issues." But by a television appearance the next morning Mondale was sputtering with anger and anguish over the lack of programs for the 2 million newly unemployed. His law office received several calls from around the country, saying it was good to see him take off the gloves.

But whether the charge to "pour it on" becomes an ongoing pledge may end up being the debating point of 1982, and then 1984.

Sunday night the platform was Baltimore. Mondale was the center of attention at a cocktail party for the state Democratic party; he was followed by the television cameras, always respectfully called "Mr. Vice President." At the dinner he was practically nominated for the presidency by Rep. Mike Barnes, who said, "We should select a man in our party who is the most qualified. Let's inaugurate Walter Mondale in 1985." On the way back to his seat Barnes received a vigorous handshake from Mondale.

But by the time Mondale himself got to the podium at the annual winter dinner, he felt like winter had almost passed. He had been standing or sitting for 4 1/2 hours, and aspirins and a pain killer hadn't salvaged the wreckage of a sore throat. To make matters worse, the procession of politicians before him had stolen most of the thunder and laughs.

A few minutes into his speech, Mondale had received only two rounds of applause, one for reminding Marylanders that they had voted Democratic -- "You don't have this administration on your conscience" -- and another for calling the proposed 1983 budget "uncaring and mean-spirited." As he stood there, hands alternately in the pockets of his blue pin-striped suit or cupping the air in front of him, he joked, "Any time you want to applaud, break right in." By the end, the 1,000-person audience was cheering when he criticized the Reagan administration reaction to the crisis in Poland. "They hurl adjectives at the Russians while apparently paying part of the bill . . . It's time to declare default on those debts and make the oppressors pay for them themselves."

Politician at Large

Yesterday morning he took time off to fight his cold at home.

In the animated suspension between presidential races, the hopeful future candidates return to their jobs: Some run the country, some return to their Senate and congressional seats, their governors' mansions and other way stations in the political process. But they never let go the dreams or the schemes, they keep making speeches, they fight the public amnesia that would make their names a page of history.

Mondale, vice president for four years and United States senator for 12, has an unusual idling perch, that of politican at large. Officially, he's a lawyer in the Washington firm of Winston and Strawn, earning a six-figure salary; but semi-officially he's the available politician.

Before the vice presidency, he didn't have a vivid national reputation, except as prote'ge' of Hubert H. Humphrey. Now, just the mention of his name can conjure up a point of view. On David Brinkley's TV show on Sunday, columnist George Will was discussing the Polish crisis. In a voice stricken with amazement, Will said, "Now even Mondale and The New York Times are criticizing Reagan for not being hard enough on the Soviet Union."

Even though his ticket lost 44 states in 1980, a sound historical defeat, Mondale is perceived to have been relatively unscathed. Now when the pundits examine the Carter administration Mondale usually gets a large share of the credit for the things that went right, and none of the blame for the things that went wrong. Pollster Peter Hart has been testing the Mondale drawing power for candidates who might want to use him in the midterm elections. "He's popular and acceptable," says Hart. "We do find Mondale has his own image and his own appeal."

His free status allows him to stop by the Florida State Fair, appear at the regional National Education Association convention in Fort Worth, hold a fund-raiser in New Orleans, and campaign for Reps. Lou Stokes, Don Pease, Bill Ford and Les Aspin, which he will do in the next few days. This schedule is the perennial exercise for a past national officeholder who still has higher aspirations -- Richard Nixon did it in 1966 and then took credit for the Republican victories. "I'm obviously thinking about running. It's too early, but at the right time, I will make a decision, " says Mondale.

This is also a different Mondale from the senator who abandoned his own product testing for a presidential run on Nov. 21, 1974, saying, "Life is too short to be spent in Holiday Inns." Now he laughs at the echoes of that statement, saying he understands they have all been redecorated. James Johnson, one of his closest political advisers, says the differences between the 1974 and 1982 Mondale are enormous. "He's much more confident, confident that he can do the presidency because he has seen it close up, confident because he is better prepared, and he knows the rigors and knows he can meet them," says Johnson.

The Cautious Candidate

The midterm Mondale is relaxed. Now that his time and movements are his own, he can go to someone else's office for meetings, have breakfast at the Four Seasons, which is within walking distance of his office, and lunch at top-of-the-line restaurants, like Dominique's, the Palm and Ponte Vecchio. Of course, some of the perks, such as the advance men and Secret Service, which assured a smooth operation, are gone. On Sunday night, he shared a limo to Baltimore with three others, in contrast to the entourages of the vice presidency.

Last year was his year to be contemplative, to travel (to China, Japan and the NATO installations in Europe), to lecture (at Macalester College and the University of Minnesota), to organize (he started his own PAC, the Committee for the Future of America, which has raised nearly $1 million) and, as he says, "to refresh myself."

This year he is hoping to be seen as combative. But one of his fellow Democrats thinks all the contenders are too cautious. "He's playing it careful. He's trying to be the candidate without being too obvious," said Rep. Roy Dyson (D-Md.), who had watched Mondale, John Glenn, Edward Kennedy, Gary Hart and John Y. Brown at the Franklin Roosevelt dinner in New York last week. "There's a sense that Reagan is coming down but no one can put a finger on what to do. They are in search of themselves. Right now there isn't an agenda the Democrats can stand behind."

In his spacious corner office at the law firm, Mondale wears a loose white cardigan over a blue shirt, drinks coffee out of a blue and white china cup and talks with that spirited, confident Minnesota self-righteousness. When he talks about the rising unemployment in Tennessee, or the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in Oklahoma, he has a controlled annoyance. "There are several beliefs that are growing in our country, above all that their the Reagan policies are not working," says Mondale.

Adding to the sense of failure, Mondale also sees a growing perception of the "unfairness of the burden-sharing," resentment of the "flaunting of wealth," and alarm over the decision on segregated private schools. "Another thing I hear a lot about is the feeling that their foreign policy is leading toward a more dangerous world. This loose talk about winning a limited nuclear war, a nuclear warning shot, the neutron bomb, backing off protections against nuclear proliferation, has sunk in around this country, and people are very worried about it," says Mondale.

His campaigning partners hope Mondale represents what Rep. Donald Pease (D-Ohio) says is a philosophy that's coming back. "He has been a mainline Democrat, who stood up for many of the social programs, he's a good friend of organized labor and working people. More and more people appreciate people who are standing up for those rights," says Pease. Michigan Rep. David Bonior's call to the Mondale office was prompted by the simple reality that "everyone likes to see a former vice president and an appealing presidential candidate."

New Directions, Same Basics

The beneficiaries of the Mondale appearance are very emphatic about the quid pro quo nature of this campaign. After all, two of them, Stokes and William D. Ford (D-Mich.), supported Kennedy the last go-around. "I don't think Walt Mondale would think because he came to Cleveland for a fund-raiser that Lou Stokes is in his pocket," says Stokes. "If Fritz Mondale was looking for people to help him, I would be disappointed if he didn't ask me," says Ford.

While new directions are being sorted out, the language of the Mondale debate hasn't changed. And he's defensive on that point, saying the rhetoric is right, not overused. "One thing that I don't think should change are our principles of justice and fairness -- that's just as new today as it was 200 years or 1,000 years ago and I don't intend to back off; not all old principles are wrong," says Mondale.

In 1974, when he dropped out of the presidential race, he said, "I don't think anyone should be president who is not willing to go through fire." Today, he says, it's too early to make that decision about 1984. But he thinks the next campaign will be different, more issue-oriented. "There will always be personality politics but when you have hard times the luxury of just political perfume becomes much more costly. People are much more interested in the hard realities and what they should do about them than they are in sideshows."