Plains, Ga. — All eyes are now on Dixie. When Democrats vote in the three Southern presidential primaries on Super Tuesday, hundreds of delegates will be up for grabs. But more is at stake here than delegates. Much more. Georgia, Florida, and Alabama could be Walter Mondale's last chance to stop Gary Hart's gallop toward the Democratic presidential nomination.
Over the weekend, Mr. Mondale journeyed here to Plains to share the spotlight with his former boss, Jimmy Carter. It was a risky gesture. The Carter years are controversial, even here in the former President's native South. But Mondale is scrambling for every shred of support he can find.
Mondale has reason for concern. Senator Hart's campaign has surged in the other two primary states scheduled for March 13 - Massachusetts (116 delegates) and Rhode Island (27 delegates). Political analysts expect Hart to win in both places pulling away.
Those wins would be added to an unbroken string of victories in New Hampshire , Maine, Vermont, and then Wyoming on Saturday. Hart is making Mondale swallow his dust. Mondale must quickly prove that Hart can be unhorsed.
Adding to Mondale's concerns is what is happening in the South. There once was doubt that Hart could leap over the Mason-Dixon line and attract Southern Democrats. Earlier, Hart wasn't even planning to compete aggressively here. But in all three Southern states that are voting March 13, Hart is now believed to be coming on strong.
Just look at Georgia. Two months ago, an Atlanta pollster asked Georgia voters which Democratic candidate they favored. The poll found only one voter for Gary Hart. Not 1 percent. One person.
The same pollster, Claibourne Darden Jr., ran a similar survey over the weekend. This time 31 percent of Georgia's voters whom he contacted said they backed Senator Hart. That put Hart only a few points behind Mondale, who had 37 percent.
''We've never seen such movement'' among Southern voters, Mr. Darden says.
Georgia (84 delegates) is no exception. In Florida (143 delegates), the political hurricane flags are flying, and Mondale is nailing up the storm shutters. Polls now show Hart slightly ahead.
In Alabama (62 delegates), Mondale is believed to be holding onto the lead. A poll gives Mondale a 38-to-28 margin. But public opinion is fluid.
Mondale's last-ditch effort in the South has obscured important caucuses in other states on Super Tuesday.
The biggest caucus prizes are Washington (70 delegates) and Oklahoma (53 delegates). Hart has focused his energies on both those contests, and he's expected to do well.
Hart shunned the Hawaii caucuses (27 delegates), which his staff complains have rules that ''have more to do with who receives . . . a free trip to the US mainland than it has to do with presidential politics.'' However, Hart could be a factor in Nevada (20 delegates).
What's behind the rush to Hart?
Analysts say the sudden turnaround has as much to do with Mondale as it does with Hart. Many Democrats were unhappy with the prospect of Mondale as the nominee, but they didn't know where else to go. Then, after Iowa and New Hampshire, Hart became the most obvious alternative.
Hart's appeal stretches right across the political spectrum. He's as strong with conservatives as with liberals, though the senator himself he is usually grouped with liberals in Congress.
State Sen. W. D. Childers of Pensacola, Fla., is one of the new converts to the Hart cause. Senator Childers, who calls himself ''the most conservative person in the Florida Legislature,'' was asked why he didn't support a candidate closer to his own philosophy, such as John Glenn.
''Glenn is a fine fellow,'' Mr. Childers told a Monitor reporter. ''But you can't stoke enough fire under him to get him smoking.''
Childers wants someone more exciting. Hart fills the bill. As for Mondale:
''He cuts too many deals in the boiler rooms, has big bucks to spend, and backs domestic-content legislation that the unions want.''
Childers was adamant on the domestic-content bill, which would reduce imports of Japanese cars. Mondale supports the bill, Hart opposes it. Childers asked why people in Pensacola, who average $5-an-hour, should favor a law that would raise new-car prices and the main purpose of which is to protect $21-an-hour pay for union workers.
''Hart is coming through like a breath of fresh air,'' says Childers. ''It's like you open the windows and pull back the shades and let the sunshine in. He's also showing that the Democratic Party doesn't have to go into total oblivion, or be on a self-destruct course with the old leadership. It shows we can find someone to lead this party.''
Jimmy Carter, however, told a crowd here in Plains that he was puzzled by Hart's appeal. He warned that a person without extensive experience should not be put into the White House.
''In some very strange way in the last few days, (Mondale's) experience . . . has been twisted by the press and by some of his opponents as being a detriment, '' Mr. Carter said. ''I can tell you from experience that the White House is not any place to go to school.''
The Mondale-Hart showdown has overshadowed the other candidates in the race - John Glenn, Jesse Jackson, and George McGovern. Mr. McGovern's great hope is Massachusetts; he says he will drop out if he doesn't place first or second there. Senator Glenn, campaigning with borrowed money, also needs a good showing to continue much longer. Mr. Jackson, with substantial black support, is expected to stay in the race after Tuesday.
For Mondale, a winless Tuesday could be devastating. Money could dry up overnight.
On the other hand, victories here could buy him enough time to take on Hart in the next big rounds on March 17 and 20, when he can use his labor support in strong union states like Michigan and Illinois.