Wisconsin: the land that '84 Democratic race forgot?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Although it will hold a presidential primary Tuesday and Democratic caucuses four days later, Wisconsin still seems the state the 1984 campaign forgot. ''There is less excitement about the primary here than I've seen in my lifetime,'' said Democratic Gov. Anthony Earl this week. ''There has been little interest from the candidates and little among the voters and the two kinds of disinterest seem almost symbiotic. They feed on each other.''

Walter F. Mondale, from neighboring Minnesota, is the only candidate to have visited Wisconsin this year. Neither he nor his two remaining rivals is expected back in the state before the primary.

New York's Tuesday primary, with its trove of 285 delegates, is only partly to blame. The clear-cut culprit in these parts is the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The DNC has shorn Wisconsin's primary of its power to apportion the state's 89 delegates because it condoned crossover voting.

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''It's pretty well had the meat stripped out of it,'' observes Bob Decheine, state director of field operations for Gary Hart, of Wisconsin's Democratic primary.

This, combined with President Reagan's unopposed status and a lackluster list of local races, is expected to produce a turnout far below traditional standards.

The State Elections Board predicts perhaps a million primary votes, down from a high of 1.6 million. Some campaign officials say even a million is far too many. The state has about 2.5 million eligible voters.

The most the primary can boast now is an uncertain potential for influencing the much smaller group that will venture into the untested caucus procedure.

Estimates of caucus participation range from 10,000 to 60,000, with Hart supporters supplying the highest guesses. Party officials and Mondale backers tend towards 20,000 to 30,000.

Mondale, rich in endorsements and union support, must be conceded an edge in the caucuses. One reason is the breadth and depth of his organization, which should assure him of easily exceeding the 15 percent support threshold in virtually all 126 caucus regions.

A candidate needs 15 percent at each first-tier caucus to qualify for delegates at the congressional district meetings to be held May 5. The threshold there will be 20 percent, another advantage for Mondale.

Hart stands to gain, as he has before, from 11th-hour recruits among non-traditional Democrats. But state co-chairman Michael Mervis already claims a list of 11,000 backers and the organization promises to have participants at all 126 caucuses.

Hart's caucus fortunes also could rise with big showings in New York and in the primary here - which has some Mondale backers privately wishing the Wisconsin caucuses had been scheduled before the state's primary rather than after.

Even if a Hart upset in the primary did not cost Mondale many delegates, it could fuel the perception that he is the political bosses.

''I don't care about the percentage,'' said one state legislator backing Mondale and nervously contemplating Tuesday. ''I just want it in the win column. Who remembers what Fritz won Alabama by?''

Jesse Jackson, though hampered in a state with only a 5 percent minority population, could do well enough in the primary to claim a dividend from minimal investment. And on caucus day, Jackson will have considerable organizational strength in Milwaukee, home of 80 percent of the state's blacks. State Rep. Annette Williams, Jackson's state campaign chairperson, says she has conveners lined up in more than a dozen other counties as well.

The nature of caucus campaigning, tailored as it is for activists and party regulars, has contributed in its own way to the lack of public campaign excitement.

''Excitement does not produce caucus-goers; phone calls and mailings do,'' said Brady Williamson, a Madison attorney and a member of Mondale's national staff. ''What good is a rally if it has no effect on the caucuses?''

The visibility of the race could still take a sharp upward turn, however, depending on next week's voting and on national strategy decisions.

Hart might seek to maintain or regain momentum after New York with a concerted attempt to embarrass Mondale close to home. Such a shot might be especially worth taking if Pennsylvania (172 of its 195 delegates will be selected on April 10) looks relatively unpromising.

Mondale would be unlikely to take such a challenge lightly. He learned that lesson last year, losing to Alan Cranston in a heavily publicized straw poll at Wisconsin's state party convention. That episode reportedly prompted soul-searching in the Mondale camp.

So far, however, the Hart and Mondale campaigns are committing themselves only to appearances by surrogates. Hart is buying TV and radio time for the weekend; Mondale's people say he won't. Mondale canceled a pair of planned visits this week after Hart's big win in Connecticut heightened the pressure in New York.

Finally, predictions for both primary and caucuses are clouded by the vestigial presence of other candidates and their campaigns. The official ballot, drawn up nearly two months ago, still lists all eight original Democratic contestants. While the three surviving campaigns ardently woo the refugees, they concede that many voters will stand by their original man.

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