WARSAW, OCT. 27 -- Less than a month before Poland's presidential race, the campaign of Solidarity trade union leader Lech Walesa seems a steamroller.

While Walesa's chief opponent, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, struggles with inadequate phone lines, lackluster planning and a podium style that brings to mind a Polish Pat Paulsen, Walesa has hit the hustings like a prizefighter.

Where Mazowiecki is cool, Walesa is hot. Where Mazowiecki is cautious and cerebral, Walesa is cocksure.

While the prime minister worries about whether it is ethical to campaign on government time, Walesa is propelled by the organizational muscle and money of the Solidarity trade union, his own campaign staff, and the four dozen Solidarity regional "citizens' committees" that he won over earlier this year and a newly founded Center Alliance party.

On the stump, Walesa is always ebullient and often electrifying -- evangelist, carnival barker and iron man all in one. His pitch to voters is heavy on patriotism; he offers a vision in which Poland rises only as ordinary Poles pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

"If things are wrong here, it is your fault, too," he told voters in Krakow recently. "All of you must do something for Poland."

Walesa usually gets his loudest applause when he vows to accelerate the pace of Poland's economic and political reform. Mazowiecki counsels moderation and gradual change, the so-called "middle road." Walesa vows to sweep out every last Communist clerk cowering behind a government desk, and "take an ax" to red tape and old elites.

Surveys show that most Poles believe Walesa will be the next president, but it is not yet clear that Walesa's heat and light will translate to victory on Nov. 25. Walesa and Mazowiecki are the front-runners in a six-man field. The winner must get 51 percent of the vote to avoid a second round.

While Walesa leads Mazowiecki in most opinion polls, the surveys, as well as anecdotal evidence, reveal widespread ambivalence among voters about Walesa's strong-man style. Opinion polls -- like the election of a president by direct popular vote -- are a novelty in Poland, and as many as 40 percent of voters surveyed describe themselves as undecided.

"I have a problem," said a pensioner on the edge of the throng at a Walesa rally. "I want faster change, but I don't want to vote for someone who is shouting all the time."

Walesa drew a crowd of 20,000 to the central square in Krakow last week, by far the largest turnout for either candidate since the race began in earnest one month ago. His platform bristled with microphones, bodyguards and tent-sized banners. Before and after he spoke, a costumed accordion trio sawed through blustery, patriotic jigs.

The previous weekend, Mazowiecki's managers had sent the prime minister to Krakow with only two security guards. Mazowiecki and several hundred supporters were beset by shouting skinheads as he marched quickly across the square. He had no microphone, and people had trouble hearing him.

Walesa, however, drew cheers when he cried: "Today I am just a {trade} unionist, but in the future I will create conditions so that every one of you will make money!"

"Just as I pulled the engine that defeated communism, so we will pull the engine that leads us to Europe," he boasted. "Anyone who raises a hand against Poland will suffer," he vowed. "I will put a finger in his eye!"

Walesa's speeches are calculated to appeal to industrial workers, farmers and other modest folk who were oppressed by the Communists and now fear they will be left behind by the capitalist revolution as well.

Poland's reform program is already the most rigorous in Eastern Europe, but there is a strong feeling among ordinary people and some experts that the Mazowiecki government has been too willing to allow old Communist managers to stay on in heavy industry and the government bureaucracy.

Recently, in response to Walesa's sharp attacks, the Mazowiecki government has admitted moving too slowly and finally has begun to prosecute ex-Communist holdovers for corruption and push them out. In fact, the elections are being held early because the current president, former Communist Party leader Wojciech Jaruzelski, is stepping down under pressure.

But many Poles believe the country is being held back by the old guard and old thinking. Entrepreneurs complain that it still takes hefty bribes to get business done.

Walesa has promised to do away with all of that. His aides liken him to prewar patriot and strongman Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, a charismatic military officer who took power in a coup d'etat in 1926.

Compared with Walesa, Mazowiecki appears weak and indecisive. A lawyer by training and reflective by temperament, Mazowiecki is a reluctant campaigner. He mumbles, is inept with microphones and has been known to break off important meetings, saying he was due at Catholic Mass.

"Mazowiecki is the better man, but Walesa is what we need," said a Krakow taxi driver before the Walesa rally began. "The country needs a man with a strong fist. Mazowiecki is a little too soft, like Jimmy Carter. Always praying."

This week the government polling organization cautioned about a kind of loser's syndrome, where Mazowiecki supporters, convinced of a Walesa victory, abandon hope and join the majority side.

That may be premature. Walesa's overall popularity actually has declined since he began his campaign in earnest late this summer, according to a recent government survey.

Walesa's support is strong among farmers and industrial workers, who regard the former electrician as one of their own. But in urban areas, among voters with more formal education, there is mistrust of the way he has co-opted the 2.3-million-member union as a political tool.

Critics are concerned about the contradictions and lack of detail in Walesa's program.

"The only virtue of the Mazowiecki campaign is that the candidate makes sense," cracked political journalist Krzystof Leski in the leading daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, which backs Mazowiecki.

While Walesa promises that he will close archaic factories and seek foreign investment, he also tells workers there will be no unemployment and that he will protect them against unscrupulous foreign capitalists.

"He's promising everything to everyone; that's why he'll lose. Poles are not idiots," said Adam Michnik, a former member of Solidarity's brain trust and now a Mazowiecki supporter and editor of Gazeta Wyborcza.

Michnik also sees in the nationalist, conservative and Christian groups that have positioned themselves around Walesa the seeds of catastrophe. "There is a virus of post-Communist societies; it's a virus like AIDS, and its symptoms are xenophobia, nationalism, authoritarianism, the longing for strength," Michnik said in an interview.

Walesa has recently spoken out strongly against any form of anti-semitism, but it is an uncomfortable fact that his rallies are sometimes magnets for those who harbor those sentiments. At the Krakow rally, a group of elderly men and women was asked why they support Walesa. One woman indignantly answered: "Because every other person in the Mazowiecki government is a Jew."

Walesa's ideas about presidential power also cause alarm. Walesa has said he wants the Polish constitution now being drafted to give him the power to act by decree, so he can act quickly, without parliamentary red tape.

To many Poles, including former Solidarity stalwarts, such power by decree is a reminder of what Walesa's most severe critics regard as "dictatorial" tendencies. Though few will say it out loud, some Poles have mixed feelings about electing a working-class hero to the presidency, particularly one who frequently mangles Polish grammar and syntax.

"Under a Walesa presidency there is a threat of isolation for Poland, because Walesa is not a figure like {Czechoslovak President Vaclav} Havel," said Michnik. "It's a matter of the concept of the presidency and the language he uses."

The low-voltage Mazowiecki campaign is trying hard to capitalize on this voter ambivalence. Posters and campaign slogans portray Mazowiecki as the wise choice to lead them from post-Communist chaos to full-fledged democracy.

But the Mazowiecki campaign has been unable to break out of its uninspired, reactive stance. On the hustings in the city of Poznan last week, Mazowiecki offered what must be one of the faintest battle cries in recent political history. "Make your choice without being carried away by emotions," he said.