As a week's worth of Walter F. Mondale tumbled out of the television console in September, the folks watching in Hanover Park, Ill., most remembered "the roller coaster" and "the little house."
What they remembered about those two commercials -- and what they failed to remember about the rest of Mondale's spiel -- made clear how fundamentally flawed Mondale's opening campaign message was.
In the end, these flaws did for Mondale's fall kickoff what Lucy does every autumn for Charlie Brown's, when the ever-optimistic Peanuts comic hero swings his foot with unflagging determination only to have Lucy whisk the football away at the last instant.
A replay of the kickoff shows why Mondale was never in the game.
Mondale was missing nightly, on the campaign trail and in the network news that poured into Michael and Susan Talbot's pleasant split-level outside Chicago, as he opened his campaign with the implausible goal of trying to educate voters in nine weeks about a federal deficit horror that they had not come to understand after nine months of Democratic campaigning.
The 16 suburbanites watching television news in the Talbot's family room became confused about Mondale's point and his plan. Mondale's only chance to reach them was for his ads to do for him what he was failing to do for himself.
These suburbanites remembered "the roller coaster." The ad puts the viewer in a roller coaster as it depicts President Reagan's economy as having climbed a mountain of deficits and about to plunge with frightening speed.
What they remembered about it was "fear," "fright," "a scary feeling of Oh-my-God!" -- the very sort of fear that Mondale's strategists had hoped to instill at the start of the campaign. Could it be true? "It could be. Who knows? Who knows?" said Joe Martingello, who works in an auto parts shop.
They also remembered "the little house." It showed a small, well-lit house, silent in a summer night except for the sound of crickets -- and then cuts to a majestic shot of the White House.
What the narrator is saying is that even if you have paid off your mortgage, Reagan has plans to put you another $18,000 in debt, which is supposed to be each household's share of the federal deficit.
"I remember the one with the crickets," said Mary De Franze, a housewife studying computer science. "I can't remember what the message was . . . but it's a comfort . . . a comforting thing." Others nodded as she went on to say the ad made her feel good. Perhaps, she said, it was Reagan's.
So it was that Mondale began his campaign with a message that was muddled on the nightly news and mixed in his national television ads.
It was a kickoff from which Mondale was never able to recover -- not even with one strong debate performance and a strong closing stump performance from the candidate, and far stronger performances from his ad makers.
All of this is not to say that Mondale would have defeated Reagan if he had gotten off to a strong start. Beating a popular president in times of peace and prosperity is as unlikely as it sounds.
But Mondale could very well have cut Reagan's margin of victory significantly with better message strategy and execution. And reducing Reagan's margin likely would have meant defeat for Republicans who rode Reagan's riptide to victory, such as Rich McConnell, who defeated Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D-Ky.).
Reagan strategists were the first to concede what Mondale strategists had complained about all year -- that the Reagan's message task was relatively easy and Mondale's was extremely difficult.
Reagan simply had to remind people the economy is up, inflation is down, peace is at hand and patriotism in vogue. Mondale had to educate people about ills that were not readily apparent, anxieties that were not implicitly felt.
There were, perhaps, ways for Mondale to make his case effectively on the Reagan deficit and what it means for the future. The Mondale strategists never found a way, but at that home in Hanover Park, the discussion about "the little house" ad prompted a quiet, young blue-collar worker to hit upon the strategy that somehow eluded the Mondale ad makers.
"I have the sense things are better, yeah," said Chris Evans, 21, who had sat silently for much of the night's discussion. "But I know that some day I want to own a house -- and how am I going to do that with the interest rates the way they are? You know, $1,000-a-month mortgages. And I really don't see anyone saying anything that would sway me to one candidate or another."
Evans had come to this Washington Post focus group session leaning toward Reagan because of the president's experience. But he was looking for something else -- and the ad about the house reminded him of what it was that he was not hearing.
"I would be for a guy who is going to work and do things for more people my age," said Evans, his words halting and rambling, but his message more to the point than Mondale's. "There's nothing for me, I don't think. I mean, if I work hard, I'm going to make it -- but with interest rates where they are, I think a president needs to work on getting interest rates down."
Evans said he probably would vote for Reagan. Mondale's strategists never used the "house" concept to appeal to those who felt as Evans did. Instead, they built a case around that $18,000 calculation that is supposed to be each household's share of the federal deficit, although it was never clear how an $18,000 figure was supposed to scare someone who has a mortgage many times larger than that.
Before the television set was turned on, a number of people in the group -- especially the women -- had emphasized that they were concerned about Reagan's hardline attitude toward arms control.
After watching a week's worth of television news and ads in a single night, Judy Cherry found many agreeing with her when she turned to the arms-control issue, saying, "I think for me at least it's the one issue where Mondale could really gain some ground against Reagan. I don't think he's addressed it in any of the commercials."
Mondale's problem was that his strategists had addressed it in two of the ads the group saw, but the ads had no impact. Further discussion showed that the Chicago suburbanites remembered one of the ads -- it showed a suburbanite digging a hole in his yard as his family looked on.
The ad was designed to remind viewers that an obscure Reagan defense official had once said people could survive a nuclear attack if they dug bomb shelters for themselves.
But the visual -- which is what is most remembered in television -- did not evoke recollections about nuclear arms.
In fact, schoolteacher Monty Clark, 40, summed up the views of many when he recalled the scene but did not recall whether it was Mondale's or Reagan's. Perhaps it was about the Reagan deficit, perhaps it was about America prospering.
Clark, a Democrat who twice voted for Jimmy Carter, came to epitomize the frustrations of the Mondale message strategists. He leaned toward Reagan throughout the fall, had doubts at every turn but wound up voting for Reagan although he disagreed with him on most issues.
"I had some second thoughts in the last week of the campaign, I really did," Clark said. He said he was impressed by some late appeals produced by Mondale's chief ad expert, Roy Spence.
They were the ads made when Mondale advisers forgot the deficit and got down to Democratic basics: an ad in which Reagan and the Rev. Jerry L. Falwell invite people to join their Republican Party and listing right-wing aims, including control of the Supreme Court; an ad in which elderly women discussed the problems of trying to stretch Social Security benefits, and ads featuring children's hopeful faces and missiles blasting out of silos.
Clark voted for Reagan for president and Democratic Rep. Paul Simon for senator. "I finally decided to go for Reagan because I hate to change the economy now," Clark said. "I think Mondale was finally getting his act together, but it was too late."