Former vice president Walter F. Mondale made a pilgrimage tonight to the mountain cabin of his ex-boss and came away with his political independence and a glowing endorsement from former president Jimmy Carter.
The meeting at Carter's remote cabin in northwest Georgia appeared designed to shore up Mondale's standing in the South and to make clear that any efforts by Mondale to distance himself from Carter administration policies have Carter's full support and blessing.
Mondale's popularity in the South has slipped considerably in recent polls.
"It's obvious that no candidate who hopes to be president of the United States would permit himself or herself to be stigmatized as subservient to the policies of anyone else," Carter said while awaiting Mondale's arrival.
"I think Vice President Mondale has always been very loyal to me, but it would be a mistake for him politically or otherwise to be closely associated to me or too much dependent on the policies I espoused as president."
Carter praised Mondale as more qualified than any other Democratic candidate and said his policies would be compatible with southerners.
Carter said Mondale's experience as a U.S. senator from Minnesota and as vice president and his positions on budgetary issues, agriculture and defense should appeal to southern voters.
Carter said that while he could support any of the other Democratic candidates if they win the nomination, "they don't have that experience of four years" as vice president.
He said Mondale offers "a good balance" of progressive views on various social and domestic issues and conservatism on fiscal policies, and he predicted that Mondale would make "no radical changes on defense policies."
During the early weeks of his campaign, Mondale announced his opposition to several of Carter's policies, including the grain embargo imposed on the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Since then, he has tried to walk a fine line between loyalty to Carter and carving out his own political image.
Carter seemed to be going to great lengths tonight to put those differences in the best possible light and to express publicly his confidence in Mondale as a presidential candidate. "In some cases, he's strongly defended and supported the policies I espoused as president," Carter said. "In some cases, he's pointed out alternatives we might have followed if we'd known everything in hindsight that we know now."
A pleased Mondale said he had asked for Carter's support and that "he's agreed to support me."
While he will support and vote for Mondale, Carter said, he reiterated that he will not campaign actively for him. But sources here said tonight that Rosalynn Carter might campaign actively for Mondale.
Tonight's trip was clearly important to Mondale, who flew to Atlanta after giving a speech in Orlando, Fla., then took a small plane to Dalton, Ga., north of Atlanta. Once there, he drove for almost an hour to reach the Carters' new cabin near Ellijay by 9 p.m.
Mondale was greeted warmly by the Carters and dozens of local citizens.
A poll by Darden Research in Atlanta shows that in nine southern states, Ohio Sen. John Glenn leads Mondale, 39 percent to 33 percent. Last January, the same poll showed Mondale with a 48 percent to 32 percent lead over Glenn.
Early in the current campaign, Carter indicated a preference for Mondale, but more recently he said he planned no active involvement in the contest for the Democratic nomination. He met with Glenn last April in Plains, Ga., and called him "a longtime friend."