Providence, R.I. — Organized labor may hold the key for Walter Mondale in Rhode Island's Democratic primary on Super Tuesday. But if the results of the Maine caucuses and of a local poll are any indication, public endorsements of labor leaders this year will not be readily translated into votes on election day. That could mean trouble for the former vice-president in yet another New England state.
Earlier this week Colorado Sen. Gary Hart won a landslide victory in the nonbinding Vermont primary and came out on top in caucuses in Maine, following his surprise victory in the New Hampshire primary.
In Rhode Island, as in neighboring Massachusetts, Senator Hart is currently leading in opinion polls. A telephone survey conducted last weekend, prior to Hart's win in Maine, showed him an eight-point favorite over Mondale.
More than 30 percent of the workers in Rhode Island are labor union members. If the labor leadership can turn out the vote, Mr. Mondale should carry the state, according to political observers here.
But that is a big IF, observers say.
The WJAR-TV poll of 403 Democrats who said they were likely to vote in the primary shows Hart the favorite of 40 percent of Democratic voters, followed by Mondale with 32 percent. John Glenn was the choice of 7 percent, followed by Jesse Jackson with 6 percent, and George McGovern with 3 percent.
The poll indicated that Mondale does not have an iron grip on the rank-and-file labor vote, despite his endorsement by the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Mondale was shown to be favored in labor-union households by 43 percent to Hart's 36 percent. The poll carried a 5 percent margin of error.
There are indications that the Hart campaign had previously written off the state's 27 delegates to Mondale and the other Democratic candidates.
Thomas LaFarci, Hart's Rhode Island campaign coordinator, wasn't even appointed until Feb. 22 - following Hart's second-place showing in Iowa. Hart has one delegate on the Rhode Island ballot; Mondale has 56.
Mr. LaFarci is confident that the lack of delegates on the ballot will not be a major bottleneck for Hart. ''We have a grass-roots organization with vitality and enthusiasm and that makes the difference.''
Across the city, Mondale state campaign coordinator Mark Weiner is not happy about the WJAR poll results and Hart's apparent gains in the state.
But he hasn't given up. ''As quickly as things have gone one way, they can go the other way,'' he says, noting that only three weeks ago Hart was showing single digits in national opinion polls.
Says one veteran political observer here: ''If there is one state that is tailor-made to a Mondale candidacy, Rhode Island is it.'' He adds, ''If he doesn't do it here he won't do it anywhere.''