His voice is failing, his timing is off and sometimes he makes mistakes -- saying Harry Truman, for instance, when the stump speech called for Adolf Hitler. His delivery is often flat, frequently disjointed. An aide says that these last days he spends most of his time on the campaign plane just gazing out the window. After two years of steady campaigning, Walter Frederick Mondale is about to have his guts kicked out by the voters.

There is much to criticize -- both the man himself and the campaign he ran. In Brooklyn, for instance, he lambasted President Reagan for suggesting he had been soft on anti-Semitism, but the truth is that at the Democratic National Convention he was, fearing a fight with Jesse Jackson. In the same way, Mondale failed to take stands on other issues when it mattered. Right before the Iowa primary, for instance, he even refused to list his disagreements with organized labor.

But all that is historical detail, grist for post-election seminars. What has to matter most to Mondale -- what perplexes his staff -- is the predicted size and sweep of his loss -- and to whom. It is one thing, after all, to lose to an equal, to be bested by someone who's really better. But few, especially Mondale, see it that way. When it comes to knowledge, intellect, even energy, Ronald Reagan is not the equal of Walter Mondale. It's as simple as that.

It is the thesis of Peter Shaffer, the writer of both the play and the movie, "Amadeus," that the shimmering genius of Mozart was encapsulated in the intellect of a vulgar fool. That, at least, is how Shaffer has the court composer, Antonio Salieri, see it. He hates Mozart for his awesome, if effortless talent, and questions a God who would snub the conscientious Salieri, and bestow genius upon so lazy and trivial a rival.

You don't have to know anything about Mozart to appreciate this point. Recall the dolt in high school who got the girl you wanted. Did it matter that he did effortlessly what you planned and schemed -- that things came so easily to him and so hard to you even though you were so much more deserving?

Politics follows the same cruel rules. Walter Mondale has spent 10 years campaigning for the presidency. He declared in 1974, dropped out, served as Jimmy Carter's vice president, and then resumed his marathon campaign. He has now been at it steadily for more than two years. He has logged maybe a million miles, shaken maybe a billion hands, delivered speeches that he must now babble in his sleep.

He's eaten more awful food than any man alive and spent hours staring at hotel phones, wondering whether you dial eight or nine for long distance. He's consulted with the experts, read their books and picked their minds. He has tried to educate himself, seeking out the new ideas and writing an article about what he found. That should have told him something: the magazine didn't even put him on the cover. He became, in short, the Salieri of the Democratic Party, and his patrons were its constituent groups. Yet the polls tell him that in Massachusetts some 250,000 people will vote for the liberal John Kerry for the U.S. Senate -- and then turn around and vote for Reagan.

But now it's over. The false euphoria of the last weeks is gone. The large crowds tease, suggesting a victory while it becomes more and more remote. But the polls have banished suspense and they've spoken so unambiguously only a fool could think they're wrong. Mondale is no fool, but neither is he an ingrate. So he troops on, pasting a smile on his face when things are supposed to be funny, simulating emotions that it seems he can no longer feel. These long last days have become an out-of-body experience for him. He is there and yet not there, and you could understand if sometimes he feels he's just another person watching Walter Mondale give yet another speech.

Jimmy Carter conceded before the polls closed in the West. Eugene McCarthy mocked his own effort when it seemed certain that he would lose. Mondale will do none of that. He did many things wrong during this campaign, but he will lose right. If, as they say, you can lose by winning, then surely you can win by losing. Give Walter Mondale that victory. He's earned it.