Washington — Don't blink. You might miss the most interesting part of Election '84. You see, it's going to be different this time. They've speeded everything up. The Democratic race for the presidential nomination in 1984 could be over quicker than the pro football playoffs.
Officially, it all begins with Iowa and New Hampshire. But that's misleading.
The fact is, that could be the end for most of the candidates. If they don't do well right away, then the road probably runs out for them in the snowy villages of the Hawkeye State and the Granite State.
They call the new system ''front loading.'' It squeezes the schedule together , so that primaries and caucuses come at a record pace. If you don't have a lot of money, and you aren't well known, and you don't have a large, well-paid campaign staff, it's a lot harder to compete.
It has been charged that, behind the scenes, people close to Edward M. Kennedy and Walter F. Mondale wrote the new rules. At any rate, the rules clearly favor Mr. Mondale, since voters already know who he is and he has a rich bank account. The rules really don't hurt John Glenn either, since he's still famous from his astronaut days and has piles of money, too. But it makes the whole race an uphill struggle for lesser knowns - folks like former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado , and Sen. Alan Cranston of California.
The lesser-known candidates are what is referred to as the ''second tier,'' as contrasted to the ''first tier,'' which is just Mondale and Glenn. It's been the goal of everyone in the second tier to stay alive long enough to move up to the first tier, in case Mondale or Glenn stumbles.
But it's getting harder. Money is running out. Workers are tiring out. The end is in sight for some candidates. As an official for one of the second-tier candidates, Alan Cranston, said the other day:
''Iowa and New Hampshire is basically the elimination round. It's possible that no one will emerge as winners in those states except Mondale and Glenn. We must not just finish third. We must emerge as a clear third. It's close to impossible to do poorly in those two states and keep going.''
If the current Democratic election rules had been in effect in 1976, it's questionable whether an unknown like Jimmy Carter could have won the nomination. (Ditto for George McGovern in 1972.) Mr. Carter did well in Iowa, then had lots of time to raise money and recruit workers before the next battle. Unknown candidates won't have that luxury this year.
Republican strategist John Sears says the Democratic race in 1984 essentially hinges on ''name recognition.'' Voters aren't going to vote for someone they don't even know; and two-thirds of them still have no idea who Ernest Hollings is. On the other hand, just about everyone knows who Mondale and Glenn are, so they at least have a chance. ''Lee Iacocca (the Chrysler Corporation president, who appears in TV ads) could probably do well running for the Democratic nomination, because voters know him,'' Mr. Sears says, only half-jokingly.
Adding to the woes of the Harts and Askews of this race has been the brouhaha over primary and caucus dates. For months nobody has been sure just when the whole election officially begins. The national party leadership wanted the Iowa caucuses to be held Feb. 27. Iowa Democrats wanted the caucuses Feb. 20. The national leadership wanted the New Hampshire primary on March 6. New Hampshire Democrats wanted it Feb. 28.
National party officials warned that if the states didn't abide by the new rules and hold their elections when they were told, then the delegates from those states might not be seated at the national convention in July.
If you're a campaign manager for, let's say, Alan Cranston, this makes your job a bit confusing. You need to buy advertising time on TV well in advance; you need to charter buses to bring supporters to caucuses; you need to plan newspaper ads, line up election-day workers, make arrangements for your field workers to be in the state at a certain time - and you can't even be sure when the whole thing takes place. It's almost enough to turn you into a Republican.
Senator Cranston, whose far-behind campaign already has enough problems, has been furious over the whole thing - so angry, in fact, that he refused to take part in the national party's cross-country fund-raising trip in December.
So what does all this mean for 1984? Does it all boil down to Mondale, Glenn, and nobody else? Will this be a primary season without surprises?
It's tempting to say ''yes.'' Walter Mondale is moving inexorably from victory to victory in straw polls and public opinion polls. Endorsement follows endorsement. Teachers, women's groups, labor unions, blacks. Only John Glenn looks as if he might give Mondale a run for it. And Senator Glenn seems to be getting weaker, if the public opinion polls can be believed.
Yet there are some unknowns that could upset this carefully crafted scenario and prevent America's political aficionados from dozing off to the unbroken drone of Mondale triumphs.
One is the Jesse Jackson challenge to the party rules - a challenge supported by some of the other candidates.
The other is the often unpredictable nature of the American electorate. A tremendous amount hinges on Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet very few voters are involved in either state. Who knows what surprises there could be to interrupt the Mondale tide with those voters? First a few words about Jackson rules challenge. The whole issue sounds boring, boring, boring. But Mr. Jackson has actually gotten a few reporters to read the Democratic rules. And he's even gotten the subject into the newspapers. And that has some party leaders worried.
That's because Jackson has made it a racial and women's issue. The subject of race relations is generally quiescent in the country today. But among Democrats, who enjoy 90 percent support from blacks, it's still a subject that sets political antennae quivering. That's especially so when the subject involves front-running Walter Mondale, who knows that he needs heavy black support to win in both the party primaries this spring and the general election next November.
When the rules were rewritten for the 1984 national convention, several provisions upset those who have favored making the party more open to blacks, Hispanics, women, and young people. Earlier efforts to open the party to minorities and women had resulted in some unexpected results: the nomination of George McGovern in '72, the selection of Jimmy Carter in '76. Some experts suggested that by opening its arms to more people - and making it harder for party insiders to control the convention - Democrats actually lost elections. Candidates were nominated who had less chance of winning. But the effort to open the party was also widely praised, at least on moral and philosophical grounds.
The '84 rules turned the clock back a bit. The new rules make it harder for minor candidates to win delegates. And the new rules speed up the process so that there isn't time to build momentum for an unknown candidate gradually.
Specifically, the rules do three things that bother critics:
1. They compress the caucus and primary schedule. The whole season can start no sooner than Feb. 27, nor end later than June 5. This has resulted in a schedule, for instance, that in a four-day period in March will see six primaries and 13 state caucuses - so many at one time that only the best financed candidate can compete effectively in them all.
2. They deny any delegates to a candidate who gets less than a certain threshold of votes - usually 20 percent - in a state primary or caucus. In other words, in certain states if you get 19.9 percent of the votes, you will get no delegates. But if you get 20.1 percent, you could theoretically get them all. That is seen as discriminating against minority candidates.
3. They also permit winner-take-all type primaries at the congressional-district level, where the top candidates may get only 25 percent of the votes, for instance, but get 100 percent of the delegates. Seven states will be using this system, including some big ones - Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and West Virginia. Jackson complains that this rule clearly discriminates against the underdog.
Jackson's complaints, ironically, jab hardest at the party's so-called progressive wing.
''It's clear that Mondale, Kennedy, and labor forces literally concocted a scheme of high threshold,'' Jackson charges. ''High threshold (where any candidate with less than 20 percent of the vote gets no delegates) is no different to me than the literacy tests that we used to have to deny us the right to vote. . . . High threshold. Winner-take-all (elections). Early endorsements (for Mondale). Concentrated primaries. They kind of steamroll the insider in.
''Even if they (the Mondale forces) have their optimum desire and their candidate wiped everybody out by Jan. 15, it would only make for a dull convention, and I guarantee you that we would lose.
''At this point, it is the involvement of so many candidates and the new-found satisfaction by women, Hispanics, blacks, and young people from participating that has given the party the vitality that can carry us to victory.''
Jackson suggests that the 20 percent rule was especially designed to hurt the chances of minorities.
''These rules make it more difficult for a female, a black, a Latino, or a poor person to win. . . . There is no rational basis for a 20 percent ratio. It basically undercuts the notion of one person, one vote. Or it's designed to cut off the long shot. And who are the long shots, except the majority of the party? The long shots are female, and Latino, and black, and young, and poor people.''
That kind of blunt talk can mean trouble ahead. It can mean that even as Mondale rolls to an easy victory in the next few months, the party could unravel behind him. It can mean an unhappy Democratic convention in San Francisco. Democratic leaders are trying to pacify Jackson, and plan to meet with him again about the rules on Jan. 4.
There's another potential ''spoiler'' in the smooth Mondale course to the nomination: the presidential debates.
This is where some of the long-shot candidates now pin their hopes. The debates begin Jan. 15 with a three-hour marathon at Dartmouth College in Hanover , N.H. The debate's format is unorthodox and has upset the Mondale camp. It calls for 90 minutes of questions from ABC newsman Ted Koppel, followed immediately by another 90 minutes, moderated by TV personality Phil Donahue, of questions from an audience of 400.
The debate, if it can be called that, will be aired live on every PBS TV station in the country, and will be broadcast either live or delayed on every station in the National Public Radio network.
That debate will be followed by one in Iowa, sponsored by a newspaper, and four others in New Hampshire, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Dallas, all sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
For Mondale, this series of face-to-face contests with his seven Democratic opponents can be either a great opportunity or a serious problem.
Mondale has a wide lead (47 to 19 percent in the latest Gallup poll) over his nearest rival, Senator Glenn. But Mondale's support is squishy. Democratic voters are for him, but not very much. These debates give Mondale a chance to turn lukewarm supporters into enthusiasts.
At the same time, there are risks. In early, less publicized debates, Mondale has sometimes seemed uninspired. After the New York City debate a couple of months ago, for example, many of his supporters were clearly disappointed. Further, there is also the danger that one of the other Democrats could excite the audience and score major gains. A winner may be decided in the early voting Feb. 20: Iowas caucus Feb. 28: New Hampshire primary March 4: Maine caucus March 13: Massachusetts primary Alabama primary Florida primary Georgia primary Oklahoma caucus Washington caucus Rhode Island primary Hawaii caucus Nevada caucus