Washington — Walter Mondale is like a pitcher who just can't get the inning over with. Every time he gets two strikes on Gary Hart, the Colorado senator digs in his cleats, grits his teeth, and hammers the ball over the fence.
Senator Hart saved his sagging campaign once again in this week's primaries - and just in time. He slammed a single in Indiana, and blasted what the umpires are calling a home run in Ohio.
Before Mr. Hart's solid hits in Ohio and Indiana, some pundits were predicting the Democratic game was over. Hart had not won a primary since March. His finances were running low (he's $4.5 million in debt), and morale among his staff was drooping.
''It was tense around here,'' says one Hart insider.
Hart's twin victories will throw the presidential game into extra innings, which was something that Mr. Mondale desperately wanted to avoid.
The Ohio and Indiana primaries got most of the spotlight in the news media, even though Mr. Mondale scored impressive wins the same day in Maryland and North Carolina. Only two weeks ago, Mondale's own private polls had shown him behind Hart in North Carolina. In Maryland, however, the outcome was never in much doubt. What does it all mean?
For one thing, Mondale now faces a serious tactical problem.
The former vice-president wants to turn his fire on President Reagan. But once again, the focus of Mondale and his staff will have to be almost exclusively on Hart. He will be forced to get tough, to attack Hart's record and Hart's credentials, and to fight Hart right through California on June 5 and possibly into the national convention in July.
Mondale's top aides said Wednesday that that is just what they plan to do. They will be playing hardball in these waning days of the campaign, out of sheer necessity.
Does this mean Mondale could lose the nomination?
Probably not. Various delegate estimates indicate that Mondale has more than 1,500 delegates. He is inching ever nearer to the 1,967 delelgates needed to win the nomination.
Jim Johnson, the Mondale campaign chairman, says that his projections now show that by June 4, the day before the final primaries, Mondale should be only 200 delegates short of the majority needed. The final primaries in California, New Jersey, and several other states should easily push him over the top.
The campaign organization is so confident of the delegate picture, says Mr. Johnson, that he now feels safe in predicting that Mondale will reach the majority needed by mid-June. That's true, he says, even if Mondale loses in California.
Mondale, however, has a problem that goes beyond delegate totals.
From the very beginning of this campaign, other candidates have been arguing that the Democratic Party should not pick Mondale because he was a ''loser.'' John Glenn made that argument. Ernest Hollings did. And it has been a steady theme of Senator Hart.
Mondale doesn't want to close out this long, grueling race with a string of losses to Hart in the final few states. Yet he is believed trailing Hart at the moment in Nebraska and Oregon. And victories in Califoria and New Jersey, the biggest two contests on June 5, are not assured.
Mondale could find himself with a majority of the delegates, but with a campaign that closed with a whimper. His supporters would be discouraged. Doubts would grow in the party about his political strength. And President Reagan's prospects would look even better than they already do.
The immediate question for the Mondale camp is: What went wrong in Ohio?
The answer, it appears, is several things.
Mondale found himself faced with six races in four days. Texas was critical, and came first. Mondale's staff decided to put as much time and money into Texas as possible. And it feels it paid off. When all is done, Mondale is expected to emerge from Texas with most of the delegates. He can also boast that he carried an estimated 82 percent of the Hispanic vote there, a vital constituency for any Democratic candidate in the Southwest.
While Mondale was wearing a sombrero in Texas, however, Hart had put on a hard hat in Ohio. Hart pumped more than $200,000 into Ohio TV ads, including ones very critical of Mondale. He worked the state hard, and could be seen nightly on the local news. Mondale got in late, spent less than $100,000 on ads, and suddenly found the state slipping away from him.
There was another important factor. In Ohio and Indiana (unlike New York and Pennsylvania), independent voters can cast ballots in the Democratic primary. Throughout 1984, independents have preferred Hart over Mondale by about a 2-to-1 margin. Their strong leanings toward Hart made the difference. In fact, among just Democrats, Mondale beat Hart in both states.
There were other elements to Hart's victories, too.
NBC News exit polls showed that nearly 50 percent of the voters in both states felt that labor unions have too much power. There was definitely an indication that Mondale's close ties with labor helped Hart get some of the backlash vote.
In Ohio, Mondale also suffered from lack of organization. Ohio was expected to be a Glenn state, so Mondale had bypassed it. But Hart had not. Mondale's late start hurt. Some observers also think there was latent resentment working against Mondale, who had clobbered Ohio's favorite son in the early going.
Oliver Henkel Jr., the Hart campaign manager, gave this assessment of the campaign still to come:
''You've got to say it's going to be all Hart,'' he insists. ''You have Nebraska and Oregon, where Hart is leading in the polls now significantly. Then you have Idaho. Idaho is a caucus state in which we expect to do quite well. Then you have the five states on June 5th, and I don't think there is anyone who would count Hart out in any of those states. . . .''
Hart argues that if he finishes strongly, he can win over enough delegates to wrest the nomination away from a fading Mondale campaign.
As the campaign goes into its final innings, one important factor has begun to even out: money. At first, Mondale seemed to have it all. He spent millions while Hart was spending only thousands. Then Hart surged, and he was awash in cash, while Mondale was pinched. Between now and California, Mondale expects to have about $1 million, probably about the same as Hart. That will be enough, each side feels, to do the job.