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Hart proves it's not over till it's over

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.