FROM the moose marshes of northernmost Maine to the country club suburbs of southern Connecticut, Gary Hart has swept New England. Hart's steady six-state New England streak has stretched over a month - this in a campaign otherwise noted for its volatility.
Winning New England, plus an occasional Florida or Wyoming, may not be enough to knock Walter Mondale out of the water or to stave off losing a delegate war of attrition. But given the time span and variety of settings, the Hart New England performance demonstrates a consistent regional appeal.
The most singular feature of Hart's victory in the Connecticut Democratic primary on Tuesday was its universality. Of Connecticut's 169 towns, Hart carried 168. When one considers Connecticut's makeup - blue-collar towns like Waterbury, white-collar Hartford, bedroom suburbs like Darien, port cities along the Atlantic - Hart's victory was convincing. He won similar proportions of Yankee, Catholic, and Jewish votes.
Those who know the Northeast well caution not to conclude too much about next Tuesday's New York primary from neighboring Connecticut's results. New England is different from the Empire State and from the rest of the nation.
What makes New England distinct? Why is it the weakest region, politically, for Ronald Reagan, as it has been for his Republican colleagues the past decade and a half?
Does its free-thinking, independent streak go back to British iconoclasm and the early colonies? The initial pursuit of religious liberty? Revolutionary resistance to outside domination? A moral outlook that backed the emancipation of slaves?
Is it today's remarkable concentration of colleges and universities in the region, whose campus values have spread so pervasively through the media that they have become part of the region's common political parlance?
Whatever the set of energy, economic, and cultural forces that make it unique , New England - or at least its Democrats, independents, and crossover Republicans - have voted en masse for Hart.
Whether Hart can move down the East Coast to New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey remains to be seen. So far, Mondale's power base has been in the Middle West. Hart's hope is to pick off the states around the heartland. He has won Florida. He is looking for gains in Louisiana, Texas, and California across the Sunbelt. Then the rest of the west to surround Mondale.
Hart's camp points out that, in the latest Harris poll, Hart runs close to Reagan, while Mondale trails 25 points behind Reagan. Mondale might end up with more delegates than Hart but appear to be the weaker general election candidate against Reagan. By emphasizing he is the more proven campaigner, the more known quantity, Mondale might be cutting himself off from the independents, the less firmly attached Democrats, and the Republicans who might not want to vote for Reagan this year. Since delegates to the 1984 Democratic convention will not be bound to any candidate, so the Hart argument goes, Mondale's delegate successes could prove a Pyrrhic victory for him.
Much of this strategy talk sounds familiar. We heard a similar version in the Carter-Kennedy nomination fight in 1980.
But so do the general charges made by the Mondale and Hart camps sound familiar.
Remember Carter's attempts to pin warmonger and trigger-happy labels on Reagan? Hart is making Mondale out as more likely to involve the US in conflict in Central America and the Middle East. He links Mondale with Vietnam. He's saying, in effect, it's ''warmonger Mondale.''
At the same time, Mondale tries to picture Hart as immature, naive in foreign relations, implying he's not to be trusted with the responsibility of the nuclear button. It's ''hair-trigger Hart.''
Both camps are staffed with Carter-Mondale-Kennedy campaign veterans. So this latest phase of the campaign shouldn't be surprising.
But the new level of charges is potentially dynamite stuff for both candidates.
New England behind, the campaign now rolls across the Hudson. How it will look when it hits Texas a month hence is anybody's guess.