Washington — The Democratic race for the White House has begun to resemble a lawsuit as much as a political race. Campaign counsels are becoming as busy as campaign managers. Talk of legal challenges is replacing talk about political issues. This week campaign aides were handing out legal briefs as fast as press releases.
When Gary Hart's campaign manager, Oliver Henkel Jr. (himself a lawyer), met the press this week, he had the campaign's attorney, Jack Quinn, at his side. Mr. Henkel charged that the number of legally ''tainted'' delegates won by Walter Mondale has now risen to 597.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson also is seeking redress. Earlier, the Rev. Mr. Jackson had filed suit in Mississippi to challenge the legality of Democratic Party ''second primaries,'' which he says discriminate against blacks. This week he broadened his attacks on Democratic rules and renewed his threat to challenge the party system, which he claims has given him less than his share of delegates.
Walter Mondale dismisses these challenges - especially those by the Hart campaign - as sour grapes. Senator Hart, he suggests, is trying ''to cook up some deal, some theory, some law'' whereby he can get more delegates than he could win at the ballot box.
Several elements are involved in these disputes. They include party rules, state election laws, and federal election laws, as well as campaign promises made by the various candidates, especially Mr. Mondale and Senator Hart.
First, here is a look at the Hart complaints.
Several weeks ago, the Mondale campaign began to run low on funds. Mondale had spent heavily in the early primaries in hopes of clinching the nomination by mid-March. That didn't work. Hart kept fighting and winning.
Running out of cash, Mondale began to rely on help from what are called independent delegate committees. These are groups, often backed by labor unions, that raise money to elect delegates supporting Mondale or someone else.
These committees spent at least $400,000, maybe more, for Mondale in Illinois , Pennsylvania, New York, and other key states as the race reached its zenith. Some money they spent was from PACs, or political-action committees.
Mondale, like Hart, had pledged to accept no PAC money. Hart charged that Mondale had violated that promise. At first Mondale was defensive; he pointed out that the delegate committees were independent of his campaign.
But when Hart persisted, Mondale promised to use his own campaign's money to repay whatever the delegate committees had spent.
Hart, however, says that is not enough. What about the delegates who were elected with that money? ''Whether (Mondale) ought to give back the delegates is something perhaps the party wants to consider,'' Hart says.
Further, Hart complained to the Federal Election Commission that the delegate committees were acting in tandem with the Mondale campaign. If true, such action could be a violation of federal campaign law. Hart is demanding a quick ruling from the election commission. The matter is urgent for the party, Hart says, and he asks: What will happen if Mondale gets the nomination, and afterward the commission rules that he won illegally?
Jesse Jackson's challenge to the party comes on philosophical as well as legal grounds. This week he broadened his attack on party rules, which he claims have failed to give him a fair share of the elected delegates. To date, Mr. Jackson has picked up 21 percent of the popular vote, but only 9 percent of the delegates.
Is this fair? Jackson says no. The issue, however, is not a simple one. Jackson failed to get delegates in proportion to his votes because of the party's threshold rules. In New York's 31st Congressional District, for example, a candidate had to get at least 25 percent of the votes to qualify for any delegates. Fewer than that and the candidate gets none. Jackson has often failed to reach the threshold in various districts.
Mondale, on the other hand, has benefited from the rules. He not only reaches the threshold, but frequently comes in first. This gives him his regular share of delegates, plus ''bonus'' delegates for being on top. Is this bad? Not necessarily. Political analysts note that the purpose of the primaries is to pick the strongest candidate. This means rewarding the candidate who pulls together disparate groups and comes in first.
The rules work against ''splinter'' candidates, such as Jackson, who fail to reach far beyond a single group of voters (in Jackson's case, blacks). Mondale is rewarded because he runs strongly with blacks as well as Hispanics, union members, and others. To reward a broadly based campaign (like Mondale's) is simply good politics, analysts say. Jackson's failure to capture nonblack voters , therefore, is penalized under party rules.
Jackson has enlarged his complaint by objecting to the system that gives out delegates separately in each congressional district. He would prefer apportionment on a statewide basis. He says the system works against him because his support is clustered in such locales as Harlem.