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Would only one thing keep Mondale from running?

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The 1980 primaries did little to improve that relationship - particularly when Kennedy gave little more than token support for the Carter-Mondale ticket at the convention.

As Mondale positions himself for 1984 he has much more on his mind than the possibility of a clash with Kennedy.

First, Mondale must come up with a program that isn't an echo of the Democratic past - and yet doesn't sound too much like Reagan conservatism. How does he do it?

Mondale is a liberal, a disciple of the humanitarian approach of his mentor, Hubert Humphrey, and, of course, FDR. He has long favored a big role for the federal government in helping the poor and disadvantaged, and he is already sounding as though he will stick to that position - but then add that such federal programs must be carefully drafted to emphasize frugality and to avoid waste. Is that enough to stake out a clear-cut alternative approach? That's the question.

Can - or should - Mondale separate himself politically from Carter? He describes him in this way: ''Carter and I are very close. He allowed me to play a very significant role. I'm thankful to him.'' Some political observers say that Mondale cannot let himself be viewed as a ''Carter man,'' that this would be a distinct liability.

Yet Carter may even now be on the upgrade in the eyes of both his critics and the public. Hence, by election time, it might be that Mondale's identification with Carter, if stressed, would be a definite plus for the Minnesotan. Also, Mondale must watch lest any effort on his part to disassociate himself from Carter does make him look like an ingrate. Mondale has some careful walking to do here.

Finally, Mondale must show he truly has political appeal to the public as a whole. He has run good races in Minnesota. He was a persuasive surrogate for Carter last year, particularly in New Hampshire. Some observers say Mondale won that primary for Carter.

But nationally? Several years ago Mondale started out very early to win the presidency but didn't stir up much interest. He's a better speaker now, with much more experience and with much more to say. But the very people who find Kennedy dynamic and interesting tend to view Mondale as personable, likable, but a little bland.

Mondale has a distance to go. It's doubtless a smart move on his part to start early - so he can prove to the public, and to himself, that there is indeed a ''new'' Fritz Mondale.

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