Despite his recent absence from network news shows and newspaper front pages, Vice President Mondale is alive and well on the campaign trail -- playing grass-roots politics in an attempt to coax a fractured Democratic Party coalition into some semblance of unity that can win on Nov. 4.
Mondale has been logging tens of thousands of miles aboard Air Force Two, stopping off in places like New York City, Wikes-Barre, Pa., St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Hot Springs, Ark., and Lansing, Mich.
Through these disparate whistle stops runs a common theme: They are places where the Carter-Mondale ticket is in trouble, and where campaign strategists believe an appearance by Mondale, for a variety of reasons, can give a boost to sagging local party organizations.
Mondale has not been appearing before large crowds. Instead, at each stop he has concentrated on meeting with local party leaders and speaking to one or more of the traditional Democratic Party constituencies like organized labor or various minority groups. The idea is to instill enthusiasm at the top of the local party structure and hope that it tickles down to the faithful by Nov. 4.
According to a senior Mondale aide, these low-profile campaign stops have three general purposes:
To "reintegrate the people who don't like us," like the large numbers of regular Democrats who supported Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the primaries.
To touch base with as many of the traditional constituencies as possible, reassuring those who feel left out and are more likely to respond to Mondale, a veteran party insider and a protege of the late Hubert Humphrey, than to President Carter, who in the minds of some Democrats remains an outsider.
To fire up local party officials "to the point where they can carry the ball themselves." Said the Mondale aide, "Wherever we go, there is the issue not only of support but also of enthusiasm. That's a big part of the purpose of going where we go."
At virtually every campaign appearance, Mondale tries to point out differences between Carter and Republican nominee Ronald Reagan. "Our biggest single problem is that people are not yet convinced that it makes a difference who they vote for," said the aide.
The success of Mondale's efforts is difficult to gauge. Reaction to his standard campaign speech, in which he ridicules gaffes made by Reagan in recent weeks, has ranged from wildly enthusiastic applause from St. Louis Democrats at a hotel owned by former baseball superstar Stan Musial last Thursday, to stony silence at a gathering of Kansas City leaders to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Kansas City Star later that same day. c
Perhaps more significant is the fact that this kind of campaigning is necessary at all -- an indication that Carter-Mondale strategists see themselves faced with serious problems in key areas of the country.
Last Monday, Mondale appeared before various ethnic groups -- blacks, Hispanics and Italians -- in crucial New York and then stopped on his way back to Washington at a union hall in Wilkes-Barre, the center of an industrial region of northeastern Pennsylvania that the Carter-Mondale ticket feels it must win in November.
Mondale spent less than an hour in Wilkes-Barre, but in that short time he conferred about the status of the local organization with the area's Democratic congressman, Raphael Musto; announced that the administration is working on plans for a new gasohol plant in the area which would use byproducts of the depressed local anthracite coal industry, and heartily denounced Reagan before a cheering crowd of around 200 union members, many of whom had supported Kennedy in the primary.
Last thursday, while in Kansas City to deliver a speech on the First Amendment in honor of the Kansas hour out to attend the funeral of a local black leader, Bruce Watkins. Again, the stop cost nothing and allowed Mondale to court black votes.
The entire purpose of the Sgt. Louis stop was for Mondale to appear with leaders of the Kennedy campaign in Missouri, notably Democratic National Committeeman Louis Sussman, who was Kennedy's finance chairman in the state.
On Friday, Mondale appeared at the Arkansas State Democratic Convention in Hot Springs, a gentell resort town in the Ozark foothills. Sources said state party leaders like Gov. Bill Clinton has requested that Mondale make the stop to generate enthusiasm among party regulars. "They felt that if we came, they could take care of the rest," one source said.
Mondale breaks little new ground at these grass-roots stops, frustrating many of the reporters who have been traveling with him aboard Air Force Two. Network television reporters with the vice president have taken to introducing themselves with the line, "Hi. I used to be on TV."
But he recieves substanial local media attention where he goes, whatever he says.
Mondale and his staff seem to enjoy it all. The atmosphere aboard the plane is relaxed and genial, with Mondale loosening his tie and changing into a pair of ratty sneakers after every stop and frequently venturing back into the reporters' cabin to hold court.
At the end of a long day last Thursday, Mondale's last appearance was at a Memphis fairgrounds. It was deep blue dusk, with a bright half-moon competing with the sharp green neon etchings of Ferris wheels and carousels. Mondale mounted a grandstand to present a blue ribbon to the winner of the bake sale and yet again deliver his standard speech. He looked weary.
But still, he was able to puff out his chest and announce: "What could be better on this delightful evening than to open the Mid-South Fair?"