Boston — Mondale-for-president activists in Maine are counting on Sunday's Democratic city and town caucuses to help get their candidate's White House express back on track.
Equally determined, however, are Gary Hart activists in the Pine Tree State, who are out to build on his first-place finish in the presidential primary in neighboring New Hampshire.
At more than 400 separate party gatherings throughout Maine, voters will elect people to fill 3,292 seats at the Maine Democratic Convention May 4-6 in Lewiston. There, the state's 27 delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be chosen.
Competition in the Sunday caucuses, which had been expected to involve at least six of the eight Democratic presidential aspirants, has become pretty much a two-man tussle between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart.
Yesterday, Reubin Askew of Florida quit the presidential race, joining Alan Cranston of California and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina. John Glenn of Ohio , although still pursuing the party's nomination, folded his campaign offices in Maine on Feb. 21.
Mr. Mondale, the first to set up shop in Maine, has probably spent more time there than any of the others. Next to him, Senators Cranston and Hollings have campaigned most extensively in the state.
The Hart candidacy in Maine, which appears to have gained momentum during the past several months, has been spearheaded by an enthusiastic corps of young activists and political newcomers.
By contrast, the Mondale forces comprise a substantial number of party regulars, including some of the Pine Tree State's better-known Democrats. Besides Gov. Joseph E. Brennan, Mondale's team includes former Gov. Kenneth M. Curtis, US Sen. George J. Mitchell, and state Senate President Gerard Conley.
Today, Mondale and Senator Hart are expected to be in the Pine Tree State for stragety sessions and a bit of last-minute campaigning, mostly in the Augusta area.
Although Maine has 247,000 registered Democrats and even more independents (who may enroll in the party on the day of the caucus to take part in their local session), a turnout of less than 20,000 is expected, veteran observers say.
Four years ago, when the battle for Democratic delegates was between President Jimmy Carter and US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, almost 35,000 attended various caucuses throughout the state.
State pa les, providing for the local caucuses as the first step in the two-tiered Maine Democratic delegate-selection process, stipulate that none of the gatherings can begin before 1 p.m. or later than 8 p.m.
To qualify for a portion of a city's or town's delegates to the May gathering in Lewiston, a booster of a presidential candidate must receive at least 20 percent of the caucus vote. The remainder of the delegates from a community are considered uncommitted. For example, one presidential hopeful got 35 percent of the vote, and another got 45 percent. The remaining 20 percent was split among candidates who fell short of the 20 percent minimum. Therefore, 20 percent of that community's delegation would go to the state convention pledged to no candidate.
Mondale's campaign received an early lift after a straw poll among Democratic activists attending an Oct. 1 gathering, when Mondale won 51 percent of the vote. Cranston won 29 percent, Hollings 11, and Glenn 6. Hart and George McGovern, who did not actively compete for support, each received about 1 percent.
Although Glenn's organization in Maine has disbanded, supporters such as state Rep. John Diamond, assistant majority leader in the state's House of Representatives, have not given up. Glenn supporters are being encouraged to attend their local Democratic caucus to elect delegates committed to the Ohio senator.
Cranston and Hollings backers are being actively courted by Mondale and Hart forces in the state.
Maine is the only New England state without a presidential primary. Vermont's balloting on March 6 is a so-called beauty contest. (The outcome has no bearing on delegate-selection to either party's national convention).