Joan Mondale arrives at WXYZ-TV to wait for her appearance on the popular morning talk show "Kelly & Company." At 54 she is a contemplative slender figure who for two years has been preparing, the way an athlete does, to run the race, this race.

Today her obstacle is the equal time provision, which would require the station to give representatives of other candidates equal time if she should talk about anything political. So the talk show's warm-up man tells the audience not to ask any such questions. Instead she must listen to an author telling a tasteless story about Lyndon Johnson, "naked as a jaybird with everything hanging out."

The indignity of it all. Joan Mondale looks off, her expression pleasant but frozen.

Her turn on camera is brief -- a quick response to a question about hecklers on the campaign trail. Then come the audience's questions, shyly put to her about life among the Secret Service, finding time to write a cookbook, pottery-making, favorite colors and whether her children mind what the campaign has done to their private lives.

The host smiles at her after the show: "You only made one little political statement."

A slow moment in a very long race.

Joan Mondale's staff calls it "raking the leaves," an innocuous enough media exercise of hitting the morning talk shows to give people a chance to identify with her. In Detroit, this means the so-called "lunch-pail" Democrats who backed Walter Mondale for the nomination. Not since Hubert Humphrey won Michigan in 1968 has a Democrat captured the state.

"They're people who watch the show who do not want to know your husband's foreign policy but do want to know when you rake your leaves," says Judy Whittlesey, Joan Mondale's staff director and press secretary.

In a sense, Joan Mondale's willingness to cooperate with the Kellys of the airwaves contradicts what has bothered her most about the media's coverage of this presidential campaign.

"People often make judgments based on what they see in a snippet of the news," she says, "which is quite unfortunate because what they really must figure out is 'What does this person represent, what is his record?' "

At another point, riding in her motorcade to the Dayton airport, she is frankly distressed.

"There is too much emphasis on surface appearances, so little discussion of the substance. Now, all of these media people have been saying, 'Oh, your husband lost the debate because he looked terrible.' It doesn't matter. Fritz says he got those bags the old-fashioned way: he earned them.

"And Reagan," she goes on, "has been exceedingly successful with the photo ops in his campaign. His last press conference was in July and he's just sailed along on the photo ops. The press can't change the photo ops because, I mean, what do they write about without the photo ops? The pencil press or the interviewers on television could certainly draw a little more on the substance than the appearance."

Nowhere in her words is there a hint that Walter Mondale may have passed on by telephone the previous night the assessment by his campaign chairman, James Johnson, of what to expect on Nov. 6. But she seems uncharacteristically subdued ("Just tired," an aide insists later), and in her reflections there is frustration.

"It's really distressing," she continues. "I don't want to sound complaining -- see, I don't like to complain about the press. The press is vital. What the press does is magnify our words, and we want to reach everybody. We want to have our picture in the paper, we want to be on television, of course, because that's how we reach people. The press is important."

So Joan Mondale cheerfully rakes the leaves, taking on everything time permits -- telephone interviews, talk-show segments, curbside press conferences -- to project the substance of Walter Mondale's candidacy. There seem to be no questions she hasn't heard in various disguises at one time or another, but she answers each thoughtfully as if for the first time.

"I've been asked everything under the sun," she groans at one point.

And then at Warren, in Michigan's industrial corridor north of Detroit, comes a question she hasn't been asked:

"Do you prompt your husband the way some do?"

The question so delights her that she doesn't try to hold back her laughter. "That's a new question. A big star for you!" she tells the sober-faced young man sitting opposite her who is taken aback by her reaction.

"No," she says, returning to his question, "I don't need to."

"Nationally, she's a sleeper," says Whittlesey, who has watched her in action five (and sometimes more) days a week since Mondale declared his candidacy in January 1983. "Somehow the media has missed her."

Unspoiled by spotlights despite the years she spent in them as Senator and then Vice President Walter Mondale's wife, Joan Mondale approaches her campaign tasks with the same careful preparation that she might a job. Seemingly void of temper, guile or mercurial moods, she has a focused mind that makes her a quick study on political issues and developments.

"I'm a traditional political wife," she says of a role Muriel Humphrey helped her perfect 24 years ago when Mondale was running for attorney general of Minnesota. "I'm a surrogate, and I can go out and tell people what Fritz Mondale stands for."

On the Mondale-Ferraro campaign's chartered eight-passenger jet flying her around the country, the moment she takes her seat she begins her briefing on what is expected of her at the next stop.

"Today he Reagan is honoring Kennedy," Whittlesey tells her en route to Detroit, and describes the letter President Reagan wrote Richard Nixon that the Mondale-Ferraro campaign has unearthed. "In 1960, he was comparing Kennedy to Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. That's all you need to know."

Joan Mondale nods. "That's good," she says mentally tucking it away.

Unlike both Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan, who have involved themselves in the inner workings of their husbands' campaigns, Joan Mondale says talking over issues and people with her husband is "no big deal. I don't have a chair at the board-room table where the decisions are made, but I'm interested. I don't say, 'No, Fritz.' That's not the way we work."

If publicly she says, "the campaign should be conducted on the issues, not the personalities," privately she doesn't fool anybody. Ronald Reagan exasperates her, and George Bush clearly appalls her.

"I was wondering, since it's such a mystery to me, that if Bush's opponent had been a man, would he have made that vulgar remark to the Longshoremen 'I tried to kick a little ass yesterday' ? Maybe he would have," she muses, "but I don't think people would have been offended because it would have been dealing with equal football mentality."

The inevitable question -- if Bush were to become president -- provokes a grimace.

"Oh, that's just too dreadful. That wouldn't please me at all. I don't think anybody knew George Bush before the debate, and I was surprised. Sure, I read the paper and I pay attention to what's going on, and suddenly this figure emerged from the debate and I couldn't believe it. It was a revelation to me," she says.

She remembers the 1980 campaign and how after Bush "got creamed by Reagan early on -- I mean, he beat Reagan in Iowa but Reagan beat him in New Hampshire and all the way through -- and he disappeared very rapidly. He was a liberal Republican then," she says, emphasizing the "liberal."

"He's wrapped himself up in the right-wing Moral Majority of the people who have taken over the Republican Party. He wasn't recognizable in the debate. I didn't recognize him as a sycophant and a cheerleader. I just had never seen that side of him before."

How vice presidents can maintain their integrity is a subject of no small interest to her.

"You know," she says, "you can be a vice president and not be a sycophant. Fritz was. Fritz never got the cartoons showing him down on his knees kissing Carter's coattails. You don't have to do that to be a good vice president."

"Ronnie, Ronnie, he's no good.

"Send him back to Hollywood."

The chant is a familiar one along Joan Mondale's campaign trail, and her eyes dance as she catches sight of the small but vocal crowd awaiting her at Dayton airport. Besides the balloons and banners there are breakdancers.

It's her third trip this year to Dayton in urban Montgomery County, a traditionally loyal Democratic area that local politicos claim is the bellwether for how the rest of Ohio votes. In 1976, Carter carried the state by barely 11,000 votes, 4,000 of them in Montgomery County.

Out on the tarmac she's one of the gang. "Well, boy!" she says, planting her hands on her hips as the local politicians gather around, "I'll come here every night if I can get this kind of a welcome."

The next morning at the Dayton Art Institute, playing her old St. Joan of Art role from the Carter-Mondale years, she tours the Ohio collection before disappearing into the Asian wing, where the media await her. There are no surprises, but there are a few opportunities to contrast Mondale with Reagan.

On unemployed steelworkers: "Ronald Reagan pretends these people don't exist, that the problems don't exist. It's not the steelworkers' fault -- it's the overvalued dollar."

On the arts: "The arts are important. That has not been said for four years. I would lobby on Capitol Hill."

On the polls: "I don't believe in polls. They don't register a lot of things."

On taxes: "Fritz Mondale will make the wealthy pay. Right now there are 90,000 businesses that pay no taxes at all, and General Electric, where Ronald Reagan used to work, gets a $2 million refund check once a year."

On Geraldine Ferraro: "A bold stroke. She stands for all women. The fact she's on the ticket shows clearly that Fritz Mondale and the Democratic Party stand for equality. Fritz chose her because she's qualified and experienced -- she's more qualified that Ronald Reagan. He didn't know anything about foreign policy."

On her own goals as first lady: "I'd work towards strengthening the family, ERA, pay equity, flex time, day care. The largest growing kind of family is single-parent, which has doubled in the last 10 years. Women earn 60 percent of what men earn, but many are still responsible for raising their families. We need to have civil rights laws enforced so women are not stuck at the bottom . . ."

Back in her motorcade after addressing a predominantly male audience of supportive United Auto Workers, she says she knows that men run the country but is reluctant to discuss what that means to the Mondale-Ferraro ticket.

"You mean, they men don't want a woman close to power? That they resent that?" she asks. "Well, I don't know. Fifty-three percent of the population are women, 9 million more women than men."

Many along the Mondale-Ferraro campaign trail are hoping for cross-over women voters to give them the Truman-style victory they say their candidates are capable of.

The Ohio countryside glides past. She sits erect by the window.

"Of course they do," she says of the fact that though women outnumber them, men run the country, "but I'll tell you something. Those men have daughters."