For its state tree, Minnesota has the red pine. Its flower is the pink-and-white lady's slipper. After this strength and color, the downer is the state mood: frustration.

The citizens keep developing, supporting and celebrating quality politicians and want the country to do likewise by putting them in the White House. The nation said no thanks to the offerings of Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy, Minnesota progressives who had won 14 Senate and House terms between them. Citizens here are braced for another possible rejection: of Walter Mondale.

It makes Minnesotans wonder. This is a state where pragmatic liberalism has worked, and yet the nation is afraid to go with the politicians nurtured by it.

Minnesota farmers working the state's 30 million acres of cropland have been helped by its Family Farm Security Act, passed in 1976. It is an enlightened loan-guarantee program. If the rest of the nation's farmers -- many of whom are paying $100 a day in interest -- had access to low-interest funds as Minnesota's farmers do, panic would not be felt in the heartland.

Minnesota's courts and penologists have been national leaders in running programs for victims' rights and alternative sentences. The state began passing energy conservation laws in 1974. Minnesota's chairman of waste management says that the state must have "a social conscience" in figuring out where to dump its poisons. It won't do, he says, to ship it out of state.

These are the issues that turn up more in people's lives than in presidential debates. They are the reason Minnesota has consistently had one of the highest voting percentages in the nation. "We are a progressive state," says Don Fraser, the mayor of Minneapolis. "We are willing to try new things. We tend to be an issue-oriented state. Most people aren't touched by issues unless it affects their pocketbook. Not here."

Out of this context, Mondale is keeping political faith with the bloodlines of his state. Outsiders mistakenly call him cautious. In fact, what is riskier than Mondale's gamble that the country prefers to reject the self-interest question of Ronald Reagan -- "Are we better off?" -- with his tougher challenge -- "Are we better?" The election, Mondale has been saying repeatedly, "is a contest over what kind of people we are."

Minnesotans understand this instinctively. A psychologist in Burnsville, a suburb south of Minneapolis, argues that beneath the state's filmy image of liberal welfarism is the reality that "We are a caring state. There's the Scandinavian ethic: You do what you must do to make it yourself, but if you can't, the community will help. The virtue we have here is, help yourself but don't be afraid to help someone else."

Mondale has been saying this. Angered -- as he should be -- by the Reagan administration's cuts in social programs, he argues that "There's a limit to what Americans will permit to happen in this good country of ours." That has the Hubert Humphrey ring to it: we are a good country because we are a generous one. The Nordic Mondale is not the peppy orator Humphrey was, but the substance of generosity is the same.

The character of the opposition is also similar. During the Eisenhower administration, Humphrey said of Ike what Mondale could be saying of Reagan: "Ike is a bird in a gilded cage -- kept by the Republicans in the parlor, where he sang sweet songs to all who passed the window, while back in the kitchen the Republicans were eating up the public pie." Mondale doesn't put Reagan in the plumage of a songbird, but the notes of the Reagan "happy-talk campaign" are like those of 30 years past: Reagan "whistles right along -- 'no problem' -- when everybody knows there is a problem."

Before the first debate, it was said that Mondale would not carry his home state. Now it's different. Judge Miles Lord, who is Minnesota's best known dispenser of justice against corporate criminals, and for whom Walter Mondale once worked, believes that a shift in thinking is occurring as the pressure of Election Day nears. Lord credits Mondale for publicly discussing the "innate goodness of the American people" and "their willingness to help the underdog." Of the selfishness that Reagan is catering to, Lord holds that "the president can't be blamed for all of this, but the tone is set on whether we are absolutely profit-oriented or a little bit do-good."

In Minnesota, as one citizen after another takes pride in and is willing to be taxed for it, the tone of public policy is toward caring. It is a political philosophy that Mondale has chosen to run on, not from.