Rudy Perpich recently was given the kind of homecoming most politicians dream about.

They covered up the ice hockey rink at the civic center, hired a Croatian band and brought in enough beer to fuel 1,200 people who polkaed past midnight. The master of ceremonies drank so much that he forgot Perpich had given a speech and called on him to make another one.

Perpich, an iron ore miner's son from nearby Hibbing, is riding higher than any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the Midwest. He talks about a landslide and returning the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party to its glory days. He is so confident that three weeks before the election he set up an informal transition team.

"Wherever you go you can feel the momentum growing," the former governor says. "We're going to get six of the seven congressional seats and probably a senator."

Most observers say Perpich is overly optimistic. But there is little doubt that the DFL, devastated in the 1978 "Minnesota massacre" when it lost two Senate seats and the governorship, is in its best shape in years.

"People are basically fed up," says state Sen. Hubert H. (Skip) Humphrey III, son of the late former vice president and a candidate for state attorney general. "We had a pilot program of Reaganomics here. We elected a governor Al Quie who cut taxes. Then he indexed tied tax revenues to the inflation rate , and by the end of the second year the state government was in deep trouble."

Perpich, a political maverick, was lieutenant governor and served as governor for two years after Walter F. Mondale became vice president in 1977 and then-Gov. Wendell Anderson resigned and appointed himself to Mondale's Senate seat.

In the September primary, he upset the DFL's endorsed candidate, Warren Spannaus, a longtime Mondale ally. His independent-Republican opponent, millionaire businessman Wheelock Whitney, also upset his party's endorsed candidate.

But the DFL quickly united behind him, and he had a $500,000 war chest for the final month of the campaign. Whitney, who says he may spend $700,000 of his own money in the general election, floundered after the primary and has been far behind in public and private polls.

Whitney, 56, is running as a businessman, who can attract jobs to Minnesota. He accuses Perpich of not understanding the private sector.

But Whitney, a retired investment firm executive, has an almost embarrassing ignorance of state government. Perpich taunts him for this and his blue-blood lifestyle, accusing Whitney of wanting to raise property taxes and not understanding ordinary people.

"They don't play polo in Fertile a northern Minnesota town ," Perpich says.