Los Angeles — For Walter Mondale, Arizona's caucuses this Saturday amount to a ''no-lose'' contest - a race he does not have to win, but could. For Gary Hart, who has an edge in the leading Arizona poll, a loss would be an ominous sign.
For Jesse Jackson, who will spend more time in the state (which is roughly 4 percent black) than both the other candidates, Arizona may show him to have a broader base of support than the black community alone.
Beyond just the 40 delegates Arizona will send to the Democratic convention, Gary Hart has the most at stake here.
Arizona is Hart country. As a Westerner, he has some pull as a native son to the region. Arizona voters tend to be independent, like elsewhere in the West, with little loyalty to political parties. Hart's strength has been with this kind of voter.
Most important, when Senator Hart lost the New York primary last week, he staked out the West as his stronghold. Should he lose Arizona, some Phoenix politicos observe, his claim to the Western states will lose credibility.
After Tuesday's loss in Pennsylvania, says Dick Mahoney, deputy director of the Hart campaign in Arizona, Hart has to do well in Arizona ''or it's all over.''
''Arizona in many ways is a microcosm of Texas,'' Mr. Mahoney says, citing the young, high-technology industries in both states, and a similar proportion of Hispanic voters (about 20 percent in Arizona). Texas is a key state to Hart's Western strategy.
Mr. Mahoney speculates that Arizona may offer a glimpse of things to come in delegate-rich California as well.
In the Mondale camp, Bob Maynes of US Sen. Dennis DeConcini's staff calls it a ''no-lose situation.'' If Mondale loses in Arizona, he says, ''I don't see the damage to Walter Mondale.''
The same is not true for Hart, Mr. Maynes adds. ''Gary Hart is supposed to carry the West, so if he loses Arizona, that says something.''
The Arizona outcome is a difficult one to predict. Over the weekend, the Rocky Mountain Poll showed Democratic voters in urban Arizona (almost 80 percent of the state population) favoring Hart 37 percent to 29 percent for Mondale and 7 percent for Jackson.
But the Arizona caucus is a complicated, ''Rube Goldberg process,'' as the poll's research director Earl deBerge describes it. Mr. deBerge expects a 10 to 15 percent voter turnout made up of the most politically active minority, and ''who knows what will happen.''
While Mondale is said to have the better state organization, and the heavy support of popular Democratic Senator Dennis DeConcini, both sides suspect more Hart voters may attend the caucuses.
Bob Maynes, Senator DeConcini's press secretary, calls a Mondale win in Arizona ''possible.'' Dick Mahoney of the Hart camp says, ''We're confident.''
''I think we'd like to do better than we've done in other Western states,'' says Mondale national coordinator in Arizona Kathi Rogers, ''but at the same time we realize that we're bordering Senator Hart's home state.''
Earl deBerge's figures show Hart and Mondale splitting the Hispanic preferences. Nearly two-thirds of Mondale's support is over 55 years old, to less than one third of Hart's backers.
The poll shows no inroads into the Hispanic vote by Jackson, who is doing better among whites than Hispanics. Jackson strength here is among conservative blacks, rather than self-described liberals. But with 7 percent of the Democratic preference, his support apparently extends well beyond the very small black population in Arizona.
Voters Saturday will mark a presidential preference and turn a page to vote for delegates by name. The final delegate selection will be made at a party convention held later. Hart and Mondale have roughly the same number of delegate candidates appearing on the slate.