Former vice president Walter F. Mondale met with his top aides yesterday in an effort to get his Democratic presidential nomination campaign back on the track after his surprise straw poll derailment at the Wisconsin Democratic convention by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).
Mondale's acting campaign chairman, James Johnson, declared there would be "no change" in strategy or personnel but said Mondale would go "all out" to avoid further setbacks in future straw votes. He put Cranston on notice that Mondale will challenge his claim to the nuclear freeze issue that played a key role in the Californian's upset victory in last Saturday's vote.
Both inside and outside the staff, there was a recognition that Mondale could not afford to be ambushed again as he was in Wisconsin.
Rep. Robert T. Matsui, one of 10 House Democrats from California who endorsed Mondale over Cranston last month, said, "If he suffers one more like this, he can go from being the major candidate to being a non-candidate."
Maxine Isaacs, Mondale's press secretary, said, "We don't think the consequences are apocalyptic, but we're not going to let it happen to us again. When we go in again, we're going to go all out."
The loss to Cranston occurred at an awkward time for Mondale. Questions about the upset dogged him at appearances Sunday and Monday in New Hampshire and Maine, early and important primary and caucus states. And the defeat was a sour-note introduction to tonight's national fund-raising dinner here, where Mondale hopes to add $400,000 to his campaign coffers.
Most labor and political figures interviewed yesterday said the Wisconsin upset by itself was not anything like a crippling blow to Mondale. Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), an early supporter in a state where virtually the entire Democratic hierarchy is pro-Mondale, said, for example, "The Democratic organization of our state is a Mondale organization, and it's going to stay that way."
But many Mondale sympathizers said they were disturbed by the loss and what it implied about Mondale's strategy and organization and about the candidate himself.
The strategy of the Mondale effort, as Johnson described it in an April interview, is "to make the pace of the campaign at every stage." By staying out front in every visible measure--fund-raising, endorsements and straw polls--the theory was that Mondale could squeeze out liberal challengers like Cranston and Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.) and consolidate broad party support before the rival he regarded as his most serious threat, Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), got his campaign rolling.
The combination of public opinion polls showing Glenn drawing abreast of Mondale and the Wisconsin upset knocks that strategy for a loop. Now the question facing Mondale is whether he can shake it off and regain his stride.
Johnson said Mondale opened the sandwich-lunch meeting yesterday at his law firm by demanding "to know fully what happened in Wisconsin and why." Many of his supporters also were asking insistently how Mondale could have been blind-sided by Cranston in a state where Mondale boasts a host of high-level and grass-roots backers from his days as a Minnesota senator.
The political director of a large union friendly to Mondale's candidacy said he had been told early last week by his Wisconsin affiliate's political chief that Cranston had at least one-third of the votes going into the convention. Yet the Mondale operatives on the scene acknowledged, in Isaacs' words, that "we didn't see it coming," before the tally showed Cranston with a 39-to-36 percent upset victory in the straw poll.
Johnson said the conclusion of yesterday's post-mortem was that the Mondale camp had underestimated the effect of Cranston's ties with Wisconsin nuclear freeze organizers, going back to last September, and had not budgeted enough candidate time or organization resources to the state.
Citing Mondale's arms control efforts in the Senate in the early 1970s, Johnson said, "We can do a lot better job in getting our fair share of those who are motivated on that issue. There's no reason we should concede those votes to anyone."
Among Mondale's supporters, however, there was fresh concern being voiced that the former vice president is unwilling or unable to run with an emotional issue like the nuclear freeze.
Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) said the Wisconsin result "makes it more urgent than ever to do what a number of us have been urging: to go beyond the nuts-and-bolts, Mr. Goodwrench kind of campaign Mondale has been running. We have a candidate now with a preemptive edge on the field, but no sock-'em. He's got to take some risks, and maybe step on some toes. He can't just sit back with his endorsements and wait for it to fall into his lap."
Similarly, Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), another Mondale supporter, said, "You have to stand for something to get thinking voters to support you . . . . Mondale has a problem getting the fire lit, but this may be the shot in the arm he needs."