President Reagan's commanding lead in the polls is making some people question whether black leaders -- Jesse Jackson in particular -- are demonstrating enough enthusiasm for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket.
Jackson is reported to have mentioned Walter Mondale one time while campaigning recently in Ohio, for instance.
And during the Congressional Black Caucus dinner, where Mondale got a spirited reception, Jackson gave a rousing anti-Reagan speech but made only a few direct references to the Democratic presidential candidate.
But black leaders are hardly lazing on the job this election year. In recent weeks, Jackson has campaigned in Maryland and, along with Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, joined Mondale in Lovejoy, Ga. Last week, Jackson made his first appearance with Geraldine Ferraro in Memphis and then campaigned for the ticket in California.
Moreover, Jackson and others have spurred a systematic and massive registration of black voters. The heads of such major nonpartisan groups as the Urban League, NAACP, Operation Big Vote and the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation set a target of registering 2 million persons, and the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll reflects a large increase in the proportion of blacks among those newly registered to vote.
Now that registration has closed in most states, black leaders say they will shift their energies to turning out voters across the country. Major black publications are hammering home the theme to blacks that if they don't vote, they don't have a voice.
At the same time, reports point to more interest among blacks for local candidates than for the national ticket, with black Americans showing less enthusiasm for Mondale than they did for Jackson.
At a time when poverty among blacks is up to a record 36 percent, black people don't share the confused view of those Americans who say they don't like Reagan's policies but back him anyway because they like him personally.
Blacks recognize where their self-interest lies and, in a Gallup poll, 88 percent said they would vote for Mondale. It's hard to understand what those who question black enthusiasm expect: backing for Mondale to rise to 90 percent?
Gallup pollsters have pointed out that too much fervor by Jackson produces a white backlash against Mondale, and some black politicians are worried about that factor. "What you have in this country is a whole new mind-set . . . an anti-black mood," said Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.)
But what's really worrisome about criticism of the black leaders' role in the campaign is that it may lead both parties to falsely conclude after Nov. 6 that the black vote is an impotent vote. The black vote can be a major factor in a close election only when it can tip the balance of power. It can't be expected to make the difference if Reagan is leading Mondale 55 to 37 percent.
But no matter what happens next month, black political experts are preparing for a crisis of sorts in black politics after this election, as blacks might have to bargain with the Republicans or be part of the bloodletting of the Democrats.
Last night's presidential debate seemed to reinforce this possibility, as neither candidate made more than a nod toward black problems. Affirmative action -- to take just one example -- was not even mentioned.
"There should be a reappraisal of black political strategy," says Eddie Williams, whose Joint Center for Political Studies commissioned the Gallup poll of black voters.
"I've been impressed by the growing inclination of blacks to examine our own stength and see what can be done for ourselves," Williams said.
Toward that end, a Millenium Society was recently formed with the idea of 1,000 blacks giving $1,000 annually, which would add up to $1 million set aside each year for political muscle.
And the new nonpartisan Black Women's Political Caucus, headed by former congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, has the potential for becoming a formidable power block -- the first time American black women have come together to amass political force for themselves.
Jobs, training, entrepreneurship -- all these issues must be examined. And when blacks take a fresh look at their own priorities in the context of what is happening in America at large, that should generate undiluted enthusiasm.