When Walter Mondale was studying European history at Macalester College, he went to a rally for Henry Wallace, who was running for president. It was 1948, just after the Russian takeover of Czechoslovakia, and "Wallace defended it. I got up and walked out," Mondale says, and he decided right there that he wanted nothing to do with Wallace's branch of the Democratic Party.

Those are years in which, at least according to recollections, few students were interested in the minutiae of European politics; in a time of economic uncertainty, just after a major war, they were working hard and hoping to get ahead. And it doesn't seem likely that there were many outward signs that the 20-year-old Mondale was particularly interested in politics. He was good at sports in high school and remembered "laughing all the time"; he admits only that "studies occasionally interfered with life." Yet by the end of 1948, he had managed two winning campaigns, and had made a significant beginning on making the contacts--and seestablishing the record--that make him today the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Mondale had the good fortune to become politically active at a time when Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party was young. But leaders like Hubert Humphrey--then 37 years old--did not step into a vacuum. The DFL's best-known figure was former Gov. Elmer Benson, who was also president of Wallace's Progressive Party, and Benson's followers, many of them sympathetic to Russia, were furiously contesting the precinct caucuses with the Humphrey forces.

Mondale, who had done some work in Humphrey's 1947 mayoral reelection campaign, was working in a canning factory in Faribault, near his parents' home in the tiny town of Elmore, and asked his friend, Don Fraser--later congressman and now mayor of Minneapolis--if he could help organize for Humphrey in the mostly rural Second Congressional District. Fraser said he had no money, and Mondale asked, "Would you object if I did it anyway?"

Mondale hitchhiked around the district, and in Mankato found an old Democrat who was a car dealer. "Is there any chance we could borrow a car?" He was astonished when the man said "Pick out any one you want." So Mondale got in touch with old Democrats and Farmer-Laborites, went on college campuses, worked local Knights of Columbus chapters. The Humphrey forces won control of the DFL and carried the state for Truman and Humphrey--and they even won the usually Republican second district.

Mondale's father was a man who knew misfortune: he lost several farms in the depression of the early 1920s, his wife died shortly thereafter, and he barely survived a case of lockjaw. A minister--a Methodist in a predominantly Lutheran state--in a town of 2,000, he was transferred to a town of 600. He remarried, and his son, Walter Mondale, was born when the man was 52. His photos make him look dour, but Mondale remembers him as "having a great sense of humor. He was very optimistic, a happy man. He was always laughing."

The elder Mondale was what would later be called a liberal. During the 1930s he made sure that his sons knew that people needed help with food, though the Mondales always had some; he spoke out against racial discrimination; after Hiroshima, he preached sermons on the dangers of atomic weapons. Mondale's mother was a gifted musician, who went to Northwestern University on her own; "a whole generation of kids were trained by her."

Mondale's efforts in 1948 apparently caught the eye of the DFL leadership; Finlay Lewis, in his biography, "Mondale: Portrait of an American Politician," tells the story of how Humphrey came over and talked to Mondale's fatally ill father after a rally. Two years later the 22-year-old Mondale was asked to manage Orville Freeman's campaign for attorney general; after two years in the Army and finishing law school, Mondale managed Freeman's successful gubernatorial campaigns in 1956 and 1958 and was the DFL's state finance director. When Mondale was married in 1955, Sen. Humphrey and Gov. Freeman attended the wedding.

The conventional wisdom about Walter Mondale is that he reached each office he held by appointment. That's true, but the fact is that in each case he worked himself into a position where his appointment was the likely decision to be made. No one anticipated that the office of state attorney general would be open in April 1960; the incumbent, Miles Lord, had a ferocious temper, and after a dispute with Freeman he surprised everyone by resigning. Mondale, who had proved himself by careful attention to detail in a 12-year political career, was a logical appointee, though he was only 32.

Once in office, he took time away from the phone and other distractions and studied the statute books. He found powers that other attorneys general had never used, and used them expansively but at the same time carefully--and established himself as the DFL's strongest vote-getter, after Sens. Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. He was also the man given the task of negotiating the difficult details in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's credentials challenge at the 1964 national convention. So he was the natural choice to succeed Humphrey when Humphrey became vice president.

Without Lord's resignation and Humphrey's elevation, it's unlikely that Mondale would have risen to high statewide office by age 36. But he was a very good bet to be governor or senator sooner or later, and perhaps to be a national candidate as well. He was criticized by some,,including Jimmy Carter, for withdrawing from the 1976 presidential campaign as early as 1974. But perhaps he perceived that there wasn't much of an opening that year for a candidate who, by that time, approached issues as a Washington insider. And it was not the first time Mondale hesitated: Lewis tells us that he declined to buck Karl Rolvaag for the nomination for governor in 1962, even though he knew that Rolvaag (who, as he has since admitted, was suffering from alcoholism) wasn't the strongest possible candidate.

Mondale's political career is a story not of a listless prot,eg,e, but of an ambitious man who worked hard, mastered details, defused difficult problems and moved relentlessly ahead of others, some of whom started out with more advantages. Among the presidential candidates, only Ernest Hollings has a career in electoral politics that goes back as far; Mondale is one of the few active politicians (Ronald Reagan is another) for whom the post-World War II fights between Soviet sympathizers and anti-Communist liberals were a searing personal experience.

Mondale adapts to new issues and new times, and yet his basic stands, and his driving ambition, don't seem so different today from those of the 20-year-old college student who came from the tiny town of Elmore and, without telling anybody he had any particular ambitions, suddenly launched a political career which has already turned out as successfully as just about any American of his generation.