If Walter Mondale is in a box on a running mate, he has an easy way out: The logical choice is still what it's been for weeks, Gary Hart. Even the women who have been importuning Mondale to choose a woman have conditioned their warning - to put a woman in nomination on the convention floor - on the choice of a man other than Hart. If there's pressure, it's still to choose Hart. But more about Hart in a moment.
The more important point is that Walter Mondale's standing with voters has been in decline since he wrapped up the nomination in delegate votes a month ago. He has not apparently begun to consolidate his position among Democrats or voters generally. His vice-presidential interview process, meant to hold attention until the convention, now just 10 days off, has been partly upstaged by the Rev. Jesse Jackson's diplomatic itinerancy and the flap over women's demands.
In fairness, you can't entirely blame Mondale. Two other points should be added: Ronald Reagan's political team has been doing an effective, low-key job of positioning their candidate through this period. And Democratic women activists should be expected to explore the full market value of their hard-won political influence in 1984, whatever the inconvenience to Mr. Mondale.
The President's political strategists have been taking advantage of the women's issue by putting Republican women forward: Peace Corps director Loret Miller Ruppe gives interviews about revitalizing an agency that is popular with the young and with liberals; Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole commemorates the St. Lawrence Seaway's 25th anniversary and then represents the President at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention.
The White House has been quietly closing off potential lines of attack for the Democrats. It is pulling troops out of Honduras, allowing Central American politicians free run to lobby Congress, and curtailing CIA activity to avoid a confrontation over the region during the summer. Treasury Secretary Donald Regan resists further ''Fed-bashing''; criticizing the Federal Reserve's monetary policy could lead to Democratic accusations of pumping up the money supply and handing the election to the Republicans, Regan explains.
The President has seized the initiative on issues like education which the Democrats have hoped to run on. The White House is again practicing effective media control.
The standard foreign policy and economic issues do not seem to be generating much conflict or enthusiasm among voters this year. Congress and the White House have roughed in, to their mutual benefit, an incumbents' compromise. Choice of a woman to run with Mondale would accentuate the campaign's likely emphasis on cultural and personal issues, as political analyst Michael Barone observes.
The case for Hart is that he would bring to the ticket more Democratic votes than Mondale would get alone, more independent, liberal, and moderate votes. The gap between Reagan and Mondale is cut from 15 percent to 7 percent with Hart on the ticket; with a woman, Mondale doesn't gain on Reagan. The party has invested a lot in Hart through the primary process; with a woman, the investment in recognition would have to begin.
Still, if Walter Mondale wants a woman on the ticket he should have one. She would face tougher scrutiny than would Hart. She would take the campaign even more into debate about life style, and a changing work force in which women take part.
If it's between Hart and a woman, why not let the convention decide?
Conventions before have picked running mates - Estes Kefauver to run with Adlai E. Stevenson in 1956. It could be tempestuous in San Francisco. But it might be better than the erosion of Mondale's support through the slow motion of cautious decision.