Every morning, noon, and night, President Reagan and Walter F. Mondale politicked in front of Chicagoans in this first week of the fall presidential race, as television news brought the heartland a campaign that was not always the one the candidates and their entourages thought they were conveying.
Americans saw Mondale, who had vowed to hit the ground running, looking in network news reports more as if he had hit the ground with a firm step onto an upturned rake. It was a momentum-stopper, as reports focused on errors by schedulers and advance aides, not on what the Democratic presidential nominee was saying.
Yet, while Mondale lost control of his early message, he wound up gaining control over the TV news agenda of both candidates.
For by the end of the week, viewers saw Reagan repeatedly trying to clarify his views on issues pressed by Mondale: the constitutionally combustible mix of religion and politics, and Reagan's unspecified plans for curbing the record budget deficit -- even when Reagan delivered speeches crafted to strike optimistic themes of recovered strength at home and abroad.
But issues and agendas aside, Mondale often appeared beleaguered or strident -- or both -- while pounding his themes; Reagan seemed strong and commanding even if fluffing his. And that difference was cited frequently by Chicagoans interviewed in the crucial blue-collar ethnic areas of this city that, in turn, is key to Mondale's carrying this state.
On Labor Day, Mondale seemed to be alternately flailing and failing, as he marched with vice-presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro at the head of a New York City parade that drew no crowd. In fact, cameras panning Fifth Avenue at 9 a.m. showed it to be no parade at all.
Reagan was seen basking in the glory of a political Woodstock -- a sea of thousands in Anaheim who came early and cheered loudly while Reagan strummed his chords of optimism and uplift.
"It was an extravaganza -- even by Reagan standards," NBC correspondent Chris Wallace noted. He went on to cite Reagan campaign polls that show Mondale leading in just Minnesota, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
From the huge Reagan festival in California, the viewer was suddenly dropped in the middle of a desolate Manhattan canyon that was in fact the Mondale campaign in high gear.
"They opened their campaign to empty streets," reported NBC's Lisa Myers. "Mondale could only hope that the embarrassingly small turnout at New York's Labor Day parade wasn't an omen."
All networks aired markedly similar pieces, dwelling on the parade that fizzled and the Merrill, Wis., rally where it drizzled. Only then did they offer a few sentences of what Mondale and Ferraro were saying -- Mondale's declarations being offered in a voice ratcheted up to a shrill whine.
In an unusual turnabout, local television shows emphasized for Chicagoans what Mondale and Ferraro said in Wisconsin and not the parade that flopped in New York.
Newspaper coverage differed markedly from that of network and local television. The Chicago Tribune carried front-page stories the next morning reporting at length what Mondale and Reagan had said in Wisconsin and California -- and not on the weather or snafu.
Vice President Bush received separate treatment on local newscasts and in the local papers since he had campaigned that day in nearby Lamont, Ill. He was shown delivering the charge that "Walter Mondale's economic dream would result in a return to the nightmare of Jimmy Carter."
Tuesday's CBS network report picked up where Monday's left off. Dan Rather, who anchors the nation's top-ranked news show, introduced the pieces by saying they showed "the Reagan campaign running smooth from the start, the Mondale campaign still running in fits and starts."
Correspondent Susan Spencer reported on problems with a Democratic rally in Long Beach, Calif., Monday night "that had done little to cheer anyone up."
"It was hours late, the sound system failed, the crowd was nowhere near President Reagan's 50,000 earlier in the day," she said.
Tuesday, the report continued, Mondale did not even appear until midday and his staff was "still down" about the fumbled kickoff. Mondale was then seen telling meat cutters, "I'm damn mad" about Reagan's tax policies that he says cater to the rich.
All networks also showed a Mondale trying to appear a man of the people by going before small groups of citizens in events built solely for television coverage. He was shown asking a group of meat cutters to raise their hands in answer to a query; seeing one or two with missing fingers, he blurted: "Did that go into the sausage, or what?"
Reagan was seen in Salt Lake City, telling the American Legion about the security virtues of his military spending. But he was also shown defending himself against Mondale's charges that he is dangerously mixing religion and politics.
Locally, WBBM-TV added an in-depth, substantive touch Tuesday night to what could have been a report that merely celebrated the fact that Reagan had arrived here for a speech the next day to the Economic Club of Chicago. Political editor Mike Flannery noted that the club had released a study showing "the continuing economic devastation of the Great Lakes region," and cited statistics on large losses of jobs to the Sun Belt.
Wednesday, network and local shows all reported Mondale's speech attacking Reagan for failure to make progress on arms control and noted that the American Legion audience was polite but cool.
Reagan's speech of economic optimism also was reported, but television reports emphasized his answer to a question on cutting the deficit -- one of the several questions he accepted.
NBC carried Reagan's response: "We've had any number of tax increases over the last 50 years and we have had regularly deficits every year for 50 years, every year since World War II."
Correspondent Wallace then gently noted that the president's answer was untrue.
"In fact, there have been federal budget surpluses eight years since World War II," Wallace said. "And while deficits increased under Jimmy Carter, they were higher under Gerald Ford and have more than tripled in the Reagan years following a huge tax cut."
This was made clear by an accompanying graph, and Wallace added that Reagan aides said it was "smart politics for the president not to get any more specific about how he would cut that big deficit."
Locally, the WBBM-TV report quoted Reagan at length but also carried this note from editor Flannery: "Only once in the 20-minute speech was Reagan interrupted by applause . . . perhaps in part because they'd heard it all before and were hoping for something more from a speech that was billed as a major address on economic policy."
The week that had begun with Mondale's losing control of his message on television ended with his setting the agenda for both campaigns.
Mondale appeared before B'nai B'rith, a Jewish service organization, in Washington Thursday and denounced Reagan's mix of religion and politics, which presidential aides conceded had been intended to energize evangelicals and the Moral Majority to work for Reagan's reelection.
Then all the networks showed Reagan defending himself before that same group, even though his speech centered on other matters. Separate background reports by the networks Thursday night and Friday morning focused on the political activism of the evangelical Far Right -- a factor Mondale has pressed as a campaign issue.
In all, the week's worth of television was like a benign bom- bardment of viewers who are paying just a bit of attention to the campaign.
In Chicago's 23rd Ward -- a heavily ethnic, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and Democratic blue-collar neighborhood where Reagan got almost as many votes as Carter in 1980 -- people talked about the campaign they have come to know mainly from television.
"I see Mondale, but I just don't think Mondale can handle it," said truck driver Art Verner, 55, at the shopping center across from the ward office of Rep. William O. Lipinski (D-Ill.). Verner said he had voted Democratic all his life -- except for 1980 when he voted for Reagan.
For a while, he said, he was sorry because he lost his job in the recession, but now he's working again and he credits Reagan.
"I don't know what it is, but Reagan just comes across like someone who can do what needs to be done," Verner said. "I mean so far, he got them off welfare and food stamps."
John Rolla, who is a mid-level manager and a Democrat, said: "You could see Mondale all week setting every land mine he can under Reagan . . . . But when people cut other people down, it tells you they're weak. Look, I'm a Democrat, but Reagan's right -- we've had four nice years."