Washington — The Democratic presidential race now comes down to Texas and Ohio. Walter Mondale has a chance to win it all if he carries Texas on Saturday, then sweeps the four important primaries on Tuesday, especially the big one in Ohio.
Mr. Mondale's surprisingly easy victory in Tennessee this week makes Gary Hart's comeback bid tougher than ever. In Texas, Senator Hart is going up against Mondale in a race in which the former vice-president has some important advantages.
Mr. Mondale, beaming after his Tennessee triumph, called the Texas contest ''shoot-out time at the OK Corral.''
Even Mr. Hart's staff concedes that Texas ''looks tough.'' Texas is a caucus state where organization (a Mondale trademark) can make all the difference.
Ohio doesn't look much more promising for the young Colorado senator, but Hart's top advisers call it a ''must win'' election. Experts in the field, however, say Mondale is favored in the Buckeye State, which had a high jobless rate during the recent deep recession.
High unemployment seems to help Mondale. It solidifies his union support. It focuses the campaign debate on economic issues, where his traditional Democratic stands play well with the party faithful.
In Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois, other states where the jobless rate has been above normal, Mondale has run stronger than expected.
Hart has several things to worry about now - and little to encourage him. Perhaps his greatest foe at the moment is voter apathy. After twin losses in New York and Pennsylvania last month, some of the zing went out of his campaign. TV and press coverage declined, and voters seemed to lose interest.
This week's turnout in Tennessee was an indicator. Before the vote, Hart strategists were saying that if the turnout reached 30 percent, they should do very well.
Predictions were for a turnout of about 25 percent. The actual vote was a mere 15 percent.
Will T. Cheek, Hart's campaign manager in Tennessee, observed dryly: ''We gave a primary and nobody came.''
The Tennessee victory gives Mondale an estimated 1,237 delegates for the July convention, just 730 short of the required 1,967. Hart is estimated to have 670, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 207. Some 300 are uncommitted.
To win a majority of the delegates, Hart would have to capture more than 90 percent of those at stake in the remaining caucuses and primaries.
Mondale, by contrast, needs only about half the remaining delegates to lock up the nomination.
Mr. Jackson was rejoicing Wednesday in his first primary victory, a landslide 68 percent of the vote in Washington, D.C. Mondale picked up 25 percent, Hart, 7 percent, in the capital.
Jackson, working behind the scenes, is striving to increase his influence in the national convention as Mondale begins to pull away from the field. Jackson has been meeting with Senator Hart and with Mondale aides to urge negotiations over major policy areas such as civil rights and defense spending.
Jackson is trying to nudge the others, especially Mondale, closer to his own positions.
Mondale may have some trouble accommodating Jackson. Among the Jackson priorities are the elimination of Southern runoff primaries, which he claims discriminate against blacks, and a deep cut in United States defense spending. Mondale has been cool to the first priority, and he is against the second.
Jackson also is arguing that Democratic rules have cheated him out of as many as 221 delegates. He has won 18 percent of the popular vote so far, but only 7 percent of the delegates.
''I want my share,'' he complained Wednesday. ''We are going to fight for equity and parity.''
Jackson's share is less than his vote because of party rules that require that a candidate receive at least 20 percent of the vote before being awarded any delegates. In some states, Jackson has failed to reach that threshold.
As the primaries dwindle down to a precious few for Hart, the senator's attacks grow sharper, his strategy more risky.
As he stormed through Indiana and Maryland this week, Hart tried to tie Mondale ever more tightly to the Jimmy Carter White House - an administration Hart blamed for throwing thousands of Americans out of work.
Hart also called the Carter White House ''weak'' and ''inept'' on foreign policy.
He blamed the Carter-Mondale team for making the United States ''hostage to the ayatollahs of the world.''