Washington — The prospect for an early, ''big bang'' windup to the Democratic presidential nomination battle - perhaps as soon as March 1984 - has contenders from all parts of the country scurrying into action.
Today Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado officially launches his campaign in Denver, promising ''a bridge into the future without leaving anyone behind.''
The first to declare was Sen. Alan Cranston in California. Next week former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale announces in the wintry north at the St. Paul, Minn., statehouse. Two days later former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew will give the national news media a shot at some sunshine when he announces the same day in Washington and Tallahassee. Then it's back to the industrial heartland with Ohio Sen. John Glenn.
More than a quick bid for the nation's attention is involved in these early presidential sallies. The roadwork is heavy. Senator Hart alone will visit eight states in 10 travel days this month, and another eight states in 16 days in March. Almost half his time will be on the road until spring. And this is a year before the first delegate to the Democratic national convention is selected in Iowa's Feb. 27, 1984, caucus.
Running for president today is like launching a major business, with franchises in 50 states, sales teams, marketing strategies, and local public-relations work to settle long before the product hits the market.
And it's not a shoestring enterprise.
No longer can a candidate hope to surprise the field in Iowa, get a little momentum - which means money for media and campaigning - before New Hampshire (traditionally the first primary), and build a winning drive to the last primaries in early June. The Democratic Party's latest delegate selection reforms took care of that.
''By shortening the contest we lengthened it,'' says one Democratic National Committee official. There used to be a five-week span between the Iowa caucus date in January, and the New Hampshire primary. This time, the Iowa caucus is moved back to the end of February. The next week, March 6, New Hampshire will hold its primary. And the following week, at least nine states - Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Alaska, Hawaii, Oklahoma, and Washington - will hold caucuses and primaries. During the rest of March, another 11 states will select delegates - and Ohio, California, and Michigan may join them.
This means that in the five weeks from the Iowa caucus to the end of March - equal to the five-week fallow period under the old system - there will be an explosion of political activity. More than 55 percent of the Democratic convention delegates could be selected. That's the ''big bang.''
With no time to regroup after the first tests, candidates will have to be ready to run in all parts of the country. Their media advertising strategies will have to be set before the end of this year.
In the past, sheer ambition and political hyperactivity could lead to early nomination starts. Today, the structure of presidential campaigning requires an early start. For those not already in the field, it's already too late, observes Robert Strauss, former Democratic National Committee chairman.
Other forces are also shoving the candidates onto the open political road. The AFL-CIO plans to endorse a candidate later this year. All the serious contenders have to get ready to woo the union, which will mean a challenge similar to a mini-convention for campaign staffs. And the union may move up its planned endorsement from December to October. This would give candidates more time to campaign for Iowa and the other states. But moving the endorsement up also means pushing campaigning up even earlier this year.
Candidates must also get their fund-raising machines in full swing. They will be competing for the attention of the same contributors. The $3 million to $7 million each candidate hopes to raise by the end of the year could prove hard to come by.
Then there's ''name recognition.'' This is a problem for everyone in the Democratic field, except for Mondale and Glenn. Just getting the public to identify a candidate can take time and effort. In 1976, unknown Jimmy Carter used his victory in Iowa to propel him into the public spotlight. The shortened Democratic primary schedule now lessens that kind of prospect.
''Senator Hart is going in early because he has low name recognition,'' says Hart spokeswoman Kathy Bushkin. ''People know he is running. Announcing early gets the formality behind him.
''He has been fairly successful in shaping the national debate, on the issues of modernizing our industrial base and reforming the military. He has a book coming out next month that will serve as a text for his positions.''
Candidates like Hart have to focus on a few states in the early schedule, in order to survive the beginning of the race. Hart's main targets are Iowa and New Hampshire, not surprisingly, and then Texas, Illinois, New York, and California, big fundraising as well as big delegate states. He will work the South later this spring, including Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina.