IF the Democratic nominee had been chosen in a national primary on the day of the Iowa caucuses, and the national surveys had been right, Walter Mondale would already be the party's nominee. If the decision had come a week later, with New Hampshire's primary, it could have been Gary Hart. Arguably, John Glenn might have stood a better chance in a series of regional primaries, or in a national primary with a runoff, to have preserved his challenger position.
Given the outcome's uncertainty, with two-thirds of the delegates yet to be chosen and voters still sharply divided into Hart, Mondale, and Jackson camps, a hurried or one-shot selection could have been a disservice to voters. On the plus side, then, the l6-week, 50-state marathon has compelled Americans to take a second look, and then a third look and more at the contenders.
But on the minus, the exhausting hurly-burly of events has handicapped the campaigners in their efforts to tell voters clearly where they stand on issues and how they think the Oval Office should be run.
We are, frankly, disappointed that the few state or regional debates staged so far have rarely been televised nationally or have been carried at odd hours. If there are ample sponsors and network time for college basketball playoffs, it seems reasonable to expect similar resources available for choosing the country's political leader. It should be possible to take a closer look at the candidates - not only at their positions but their backgrounds, public office records, management styles, and values.
When the candidates get themselves into trouble on the campaign trail, it is up to them to get themselves out of it. Gary Hart's suddenly promising, if elected, to shift the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, just as the New York and Pennsylvania primaries near, represented his own political calculation, leaving him open to Mondale's charge that Hart had done a ''flip-flop'' on the issue. Whatever the merits of Hart's embassy stand, it hardly represents his entire candidacy. Nor does Mondale's actions in supporting the sale of F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia while vice-president wholly characterize his attitude toward Israel and the Middle East.
There is a question of fairness to the candidates and what they represent. This newspaper on Friday reviewed the ''beef'' in Hart's claim to offer new ideas. Hart's proposals for military reform and for retraining workers displaced by technology and foreign competition are by no means frivolous. His calls for cutting sulfur-dioxide emissions in half to combat acid rain and for ''lifeline'' utility rates for the elderly and the poor show a regard for specific, describable action.
Just so, there is more to the Mondale and Jackson candidacies than meets the public's eye through the current campaign. Clearly, the presidential nomination process itself in 1984 - including the candidates, the media, and party and public interest organizations - is being pressed to do a better job of giving Americans an informed and fair choice.