Recall, if you will, the severely contrasting styles of the two major presidential candidates of 1980. Democrat Jimmy Carter was a human warehouse, full of facts and statistics. Republican Ronald Reagan had perfected the "horseshoes" method where points were awarded and credit was given just for being "close." If asked what time it was, Carter would have taken the opportunity to tell his questioner how to make a watch, while Reagan would have announced to those within earshot that "the hour is late, the time to march now." Reagan carried 44 states.

Which brings us to the shrewd and formerly secret strategy of former vice president Walter Mondale, who was on the short end of the 1980 score and seems to have learned something from that experience. A preview of Mondale's shrewd, secret strategy was barely visible at the recent Detroit meeting of the Democratic National Committee, where Mondale and most of the other presidential candidates spoke. The former vice president accused the Reagan policies of helping the haves and harming the have-nots. As evidence, the Democratic front-runner cited the statistic that Reagan's "pals have lifted Ferrari sales by 59 percent." Now, in the first year of the Reagan administration, according to Ward's Automotive Reports, the Sporting News of the car business, there were 904 of the expensive Ferrari sports cars sold in the United States. In 1982, that number dropped to 686, a fall-off of some 24 percent. The first half of 1983 showed a continuing slide to an annual rate of only 530.

So where did Mondale, with acknowledged personal smarts and what is generally regarded as the most professional of campaign staffs, come up with this nugget? It seems he--or somebody he trusts--confused the Ferrari with the Jaguar, the American sales of which did climb 59 percent between 1980 and 1981, and another 120 percent between 1981 and 1982, to a total of 10,313. Now, recall the Reagan strategy. In 1980, the Republican nominee stated that trees were responsible for 93 percent of the nation's nitrogen oxides; that Mt. St. Helens had released more sulfur dioxide in the air than "has been released in the last 10 years of auto driving"; that an oil slick on the Santa Barbara Channel around the turn of the century "purified the air and prevented the spread of infectious diseases." And he won the hearts and votes of his fellow citizens in large numbers.

Now comes the Mondale approach: seeming to confuse sales figures of Ferraris and Jaguars. But he isn't fooling us. We know that he is merely ingratiating himself with us--the same way Reagan did--by appearing to make a gaffe or a factual blooper. What, after all, did all that accuracy do for Jimmy Carter? So the next time you hear a mistake attributed to Mondale, you'll know what he's up to. If Reagan can preempt the education issue, the Democrats should be able to retaliate by stealing the "to err is human" ploy.