Oklahoma City, Okla. — Three weeks ago, John Glenn was expected to sweep across the Oklahoma plains as if he were still in his Mercury capsule and snatch up all of the Sooner State's 53 Democratic National Convention delegates.
But after his poor showing in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary , some state Democratic officials are now predicting Glenn will finish third behind a surging Gary Hart and the one-time front-runner, Walter Mondale.
Although Mr. Mondale has a well-oiled political machine in place here and was until recently in the lead, it is Mr. Hart, buoyed by his continuing upsets of Mondale, who seems to be blasting off.
With the March 13 caucuses fast approaching, Mondale's staff is trying to prop up a machine that is beginning to show signs of rust and to stave off Hart so Oklahoma will not become part of a national disaster for Mondale on Super Tuesday.
There are signs Mondale's support is eroding.
The latest data from the respected Oklahoma Poll show Hart has moved into the lead. Before that, Mondale, Glenn, and Hart had been about even.
Ken Bailey, who heads the poll, says Hart is showing a ''significant'' increase in support. ''People we surveyed seem excited and unsure about Hart,'' he says. ''They say he's added a little spark to the campaign.''
During the final week of campaigning Hart won the endorsement of former US House Speaker Carl Albert.
After their candidate's smashing victories in the Maine caucuses and in a nonbinding vote in Vermont, Hart campaign workers in Oklahoma City had eight more phone lines installed, bringing the total number to 15. Hart also has begun to pick up significant help in each of the state's 77 counties, said Martin O'Malley, the senator's Fifth District coordinator.
Mr. O'Malley, like many members of the Hart staff here, is a transplant from out of state. He came over from the senator's Iowa organization. These workers have arrived here late, but they are apparently making the most of their coming.
The Hart campaign planned to spend $30,000 in Oklahoma, using much of the cash to run last-minute media spots that include television commercials.
In addition, O'Malley says the campaign is searching for support at the grass roots in an attempt to defeat Mondale.
It was Mondale who took over Oklahoma when Glenn began to falter. But with Hart coming on strong, the Mondale camp has become tight-lipped. Mondale coordinator Martin Davis says he has no idea what Mondale's Oklahoma budget is, and he does not know anyone who does.
''We're looking at being competitive,'' Mr. Davis says. ''We are not planning to change our strategy one bit. We have been here since November.''
Davis acknowledges the changing Oklahoma situation by saying the scene is ''volatile.''
''The numbers keep jumping around. One day we're hot, the next day it's Glenn , and the next Hart. We are confident. There are still eight days left.''
While both Mondale and Hart are battling for first place, a faltering Glenn is battling just to stay in the race here.
A projected Glenn budget of $50,000 has been pared to $20,000. But almost all of that is gone, and his supporters are desperately trying to scuttle rumors that the Ohio senator is in any way likely to abandon his Oklahoma campaign.
''That's not true,'' says Glenn's state co-coordinator, Mike Turpen. ''It has been hard with a grass-root volunteer effort to compete with a professional organization like Walter Mondale's,'' says Mr. Turpen, the state attorney general. He admits that plans to establish Oklahoma City and Tulsa campaign offices were sunk after poor showings in New Hampshire and Iowa.
Continued money problems for Glenn also mean there will not be any advertising or a media blitz to make up for the sag, Turpen adds.
Glenn skipped the Maine caucuses to concentrate on the Southern states of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, where voting crucial to the Ohio senator's candidacy are being held tomorrow. Privately, Glenn supporters are bemoaning the fact that the national campaign has left them without resources to battle Mondale and Hart.
''I don't think there's any doubt about Iowa and New Hampshire having an impact on the mind-set of potential caucus members,'' Turpen says. He agrees that Mondale now has the Oklahoma lead. But he says he believes just as strongly that Hart may be the man to beat here.
If Glenn cannot win in Oklahoma, a state where national heroes are revered, there may be nowhere in America he can, Turpen admits. ''We're trying to keep the campaign together and ride the river with John Glenn,'' Turpen says. ''But it's hard to ignore what's going on around you.''