Vice president Mondale today followed President Carter's lead in assailing GOP nominee Ronald Reagan's record on civil rights, though he stopped short of accusing Reagan of racism.

At a news conference here, Mondale attacked Reagan for calling the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act a "bad piece of legislation," and said Reagan has had "dismal record" on civil rights.

"Mr. Carter's record on civil rights is as good or beeter than that of any president," Mondale said. "Mr. Reagan's record is something different."

Earlier, at a St. Louis news conference, Mondale said, "In all the great civil rights fights. Mr. Reagan has opposed progress." The vice president added, "Virtually every significant black and Hispanic leader in the country supports President Carter."

Like Carter on Tuesday, Mondale accused Reagan of using "old code words" that to some people signify racism -- like Reagan's statement before a Deep South audience that he supports "states' rights," which was long considered a euphemism in the South for perpetuating segregation.

Mondale said Reagan "probably represents the most right wing candidacy the Republican Party has had in recent history, with on possible exception," apparently referring to the 1964 Barry Goldwater candidacy.

Mondale insisted that neither he nor Carter had directly accused Reagan of racism. But Mondale's remarks yesterday amounted to a different set of "code words" targeted to win the support of a specific group of voters -- in this case, blacks.

The Mondale camp believes that Carter must attract black voters to the polls. They are convinced that few blacks will defect to Reagan, but they worry that many blacks may simply stay home and deny Carter votes that could prove crucial, particularly in the South and in northern industrial states which Carter won last time and needs again this year.

In addition, Mondale strategists are unwilling to back down from what they see as fair criticism of Reagan's record, even though such attacks have been characterized by Reagan's running mate, George Bush, as "groin kicking."

Mondale took every opportunity yesterday to recite the names of prominent blacks who support Carter -- former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and others.

He twice challenged Reagan to "Improve" what he called an "otherwise uninterrupted dismal record" on civil rights by asking his congressional supporters to back current legislation which would strengthen provisions of the Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination in housing.

Reagan says he now supporters the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Mondale responded yesterday, "Mr. Reagan has been doing a lot of mind-changing recently," Mondale said he did not know what Carter's position was in 1964 on the legislation, but strongly defended Carter's overall record on the issue.