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Democrats seem wary of Mondale tax plan

The unveiling of Walter F. Mondale's plan to reduce the federal deficit has brought the expected derisive cries from Republicans. But in the Democratic ranks on Capitol Hill there is no stampede to endorse the centerpiece of their party's presidential campaign.

While some Democrats are praising the presidential nominee for his ''backbone ,'' many are pleading that they need more time to study the proposal. Even some of Mr. Mondale's staunchest allies are steering clear of the details of a program that would raise taxes for people earning more than $25,000 a year.

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''Basically what you have is a candidate for president who is willing to face the issues,'' said Rep. Tony Coelho, a close Mondale associate. But the Californian, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, made it clear to reporters that his party's congressional candidates do not have to embrace the specifics.

''I'm telling my congressional candidates that they don't need to adopt any specific program,'' he said. ''What they need to adopt is a concept.'' That concept is a ''pay-as-you-go'' and responsible government theme, according to Coelho. He made no promises to support the details of the Mondale plan should it ever come to Congress.

In the time since Mondale laid out his exact proposal, his party on Capitol Hill appeared to be divided into two camps. In one camp are the party faithful who hold ''safe'' seats in Congress and who are willing to stand with Mondale even if his tax proposals might be unpalatable to voters. In the other are Democrats who are already jittery as they see Ronald Reagan's popularity climbing in their districts.

One of the ''secure'' Democrats, Rep. Leon Panetta of California, said in an interview that ''the American people have got to face up to this issue'' of the budget deficit. ''The person who says you don't have to worry about taxes or cutbacks is playing to the worst side of citizens,'' he said.

''It is a risk,'' he conceded. ''Unless House members and Mondale can turn the debate so it focuses on the President's inaction, then it will hurt'' in the elections. He said the next two weeks will tell whether the strategy has worked.

Meanwhile, Congressman Panetta held that the Democrats could suffer even if they ducked the issue and refused to stand by the Mondale campaign's plan to reform the federal budget. ''If the Democrats walk away from it and leave Mondale alone, then I think it's going to hurt everybody.''

He added: ''I think the Democrats really ought to go down fighting on this issue.''

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In fact, some marginal Democratic candidates are making deficit-fighting a big issue, even if it means telling voters the ''bad'' news. ''If you're in trouble at home, you cut your expenses and try to increase your income,'' said Rep. James Clark (D) of North Carolina, who is locked in a rematch with a Republican who almost won in 1982. ''We've got to do that on a national basis.''

Some of the reductions must come from taxes, according to Congressman Clark, who said, ''My attitude with voters has always been to tell them the truth.''

However, many of Clark's colleagues have avoided being painted as tax increasers. Aides for Rep. Joseph G. Minish (D) of New Jersey said that the Mondale tax plan would not be part of his reelection campaign in a district that has been redrawn to include a Republican majority.

''It's not playing at all,'' said a Minish campaign aide when asked the reaction to the Mondale program in New Jersey. Instead, 22-year veteran Representative Minish is focusing on issues like the environment, senior citizens, and the Minish record of local service.

Those Democrats who do focus on the deficit often have their own plans to reduce it. In Arkansas, Sen. David Pryor, who faces his first serious Repubulican threat from Rep. Ed Bethune, has proposed a ''trust fund'' to decrease the federal debt. He has not yet endorsed Mondale's comprehensive plan, and it is unlikely that he will, since only a few weeks ago he met privately with Mondale, and, according to a Pryor spokeswoman, ''advised him against raising taxes'' except as a last resort.

In South Carolina's Senate race between Republican Sen. Jesse A. Helms and Democrat Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., the Democrat has staunchly opposed tax increases. In fact, Governor Hunt is now trying to convince voters that ''he's never proposed to raise taxes,'' according to his campaign press secretary.

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