Wichita, Kan. — Kansas' Democratic Party local caucuses this weekend represent a chance for Gary Hart to regain a bit of momentum his presidential campaign lost in Illinois.
For Walter Mondale, the 117 Kansas local caucuses provide an arena where he can show his appeal to conservative farm state Democrats and build on his Illinois victory before the crucial New York State primary.
Both leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have been saying the contest will come down to the national convention in July, so even Kansas' 44 delegates are important.
Saturday, Kansas Democrats in 101 counties will attend county caucuses. In the state's four largest counties, Democrats will meet in 16 meetings by state senatorial districts. They will determine who 37 of the delegates will support at the presidential nominating convention. Seven of the state's delegates will be uncommitted.
It is the first time since 1976 that Democrats here (comprising 29 percent of the state's registered voters) have held presidential nomination caucuses. In 1980 Kansas had an experimental presidential primary, won easily by Jimmy Carter.
Mr. Hart's campaign staff has been optimistic. ''I think it's going to be tight,'' says Kathleen Sebelius, Hart's volunteer Kansas coordinator. ''Two weeks ago, I had said we'd get killed.''
But Mr. Mondale's supporters have become more optimistic since the Illinois victory.
''I think we're going to have a close race on Saturday,'' says Tom Cosgrove, Mondale's Kansas coordinator. ''The Gary Hart fad has probably reached its crest and has leveled off.''
Hart has some advantages in Kansas. He is a Sunflower State native who grew up in Ottawa, a farming community of 11,000 in northeast Kansas. He is the United States senator from neighboring Colorado and has been able to send busloads of volunteers from there to work in Kansas.
In the four days leading up to the Kansas caucuses, Hart spent $50,000 - a substantial amount by Kansas standards - on television advertising.
Meanwhile, former Vice-President Mondale's campaign has had a full-time staff in the state since November.
Further, his endorsements from organized labor - including the machinists' union, which has 20,000 members in Wichita's massive business aircraft manufacturing industry, and the National Education Association, a teachers' organization - have helped him establish a statewide network of supporters.
Mondale has also captured the support of much of the state's Democratic Party regulars. His state campaign chairman, Terrence Scanlon, is a former state party chairman and one of the most influential Democrats in Kansas.
And many of those Mondale didn't capture had been pledged to John Glenn. After the Ohio senator dropped out of the race, many Glenn supporters have remained uncommitted.
Until a month ago, most observers thought the contest in Kansas would be between Mondale and Senator Glenn. Gov. John Carlin (D) was among Glenn's earliest supporters and endorsed him last August. The party activists were split between Glenn and Mondale. Since Glenn quit the race one week ago, there hasn't been any massive shift of his supporters to either Mondale or Hart.
Until three weeks ago, the Hart campaign in Kansas was virtually nonexistent. He had a volunteer state coordinator in the capital, Topeka, and a local campaign chairman in Wichita, the state's largest city and Democratic stronghold. But that was it.
Hart's momentum coming out of the primary victories in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Florida, plus the increases in money donated to the campaign, helped him move quickly to organize. He now has volunteers in 54 of the state's 105 counties.
In addition, half a dozen campaign staffers were sent to help organize for Hart. Busloads of volunteers were trucked into the state on weekends, and Colorado Farmer's Union officials have been calling farmers in rural western Kansas urging support for Hart. In the last three weeks campaign offices were opened in Topeka, Wichita, and Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City.
But Mondale campaigners have been hard at work with telephone banks since January. He has volunteers in every county and campaign officers in Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City, Overland Park, and three more in the southeastern part of the state.