Washington — It was a raw New Hampshire night. Sleet and freezing rain made the highways and sidewalks slippery. But it was a night that made Republicans feel warm and wonderful.
Votes were being counted in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, and it was the best kind of news for the Republicans and Ronald Reagan. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, a political unknown nationally, was upsetting Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale.
Charles Black, a senior adviser to the Reagan campaign, was in Concord to keep an eye on the Democrats. As the size of Senator Hart's victory margin grew, Mr. Black confided to a reporter that he couldn't be more pleased. Hart's upset denied Mr. Mondale what the Democrats needed most: time.
''Time is an important commodity in politics,'' Black observed. It's something that money cannot buy, or replace, he added.
Black's comments now seem prescient. Today, with less than 24 hours remaining before Americans vote, even some leading Democrats say, expectably, that time simply ran out too quickly for the Democratic ticket. There was too little time to organize, too little time to change Mondale's image with voters, too little time to develop the issues.
From the very beginning, Mondale's own advisers had realized the importance of the time factor in the 1984 elections. They had hoped to vanquish Mondale's Democratic foes quickly, then spend months preparing for the race against President Reagan.
Instead, New Hampshire turned Mondale's plans upside down. He had to fight for months for his political life. And prospects for a Democratic victory in 1984 grew dimmer and dimmer.
In July, nearly five months after his New Hampshire upset, Hart was still nipping at Mondale's heels. Even though he was beaten, Hart held press conferences, courted delegates, and refused to support Mondale as the Democratic convention got under way in San Francisco.
Perhaps even worse, the long, bruising battle left Mondale with a great deal of ''political baggage.'' Reagan didn't have to beat up on Mondale. Democrats had already done that for him.
Opponents like Hart, Sen. John Glenn, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, former Gov. Reubin Askew, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson had left voters with a ragged picture of Mondale. These fellow Democrats had told voters that Mondale was a big spender, weak on defense, a voice out of the past, a tool of the labor unions.
South Carolina Senator Hollings, the major Democratic candidate this year from the all-important South, told his fellow moderates in the party: ''If I saw leadership in any of the so-called front-runners, I might not be in this race. But I don't. Walter Mondale is continuing the tradition of the special interests.''
Ohio Senator Glenn, a military hero, told his party that ''the Mondale record goes far beyond a simple disagreement over specific weapons programs. I think it reveals a fundamental lack of support for an adequate national defense.''
Ex-Florida Governor Askew, a former chief US trade negotiator, told his party that Mondale's plan to protect the US auto industry from foreign competition could ''raise new car prices as much as $1,000 (and) cost three jobs for every one saved.''
Senator Hart, the toughest Mondale foe of all, battered his opponent's image for months. He told the Cleveland City Club on April 24:
''Walter Mondale may promise industrial renewal, but Carter/Mondale delivered bailouts, bandaids, and industrial decline. Walter Mondale may promise a rising economy, but Carter/Mondale dragged it down with 15 percent interest rates.''
All this left Mondale, by the time of the convention, with what political insiders call ''high negatives.'' In September, the CBS-New York Times poll found that 41 percent of the public had an overall ''unfavorable'' view of Mondale. Only 27 percent viewed him favorably.
George Gallup Jr. notes that a candidate's favorable-unfavorable rating, along with issues and party loyalty, is a ''key barometer of presidential election results.'' The intraparty fighting among Democrats gave Mondale little opportunity to turn those numbers around.
Meanwhile, Reagan had a clear field in front of him as 1984 began. With no opposition within his own party, his handlers could turn their full attention to his image.
Although Reagan leads Mondale in the latest opinion polls by from 17 to 24 points, the picture was far different back in January. In a poll taken Jan. 13- 17, Gallup measured Reagan's lead at only one point, 48 to 47.
Reagan officials knew they had a problem, and they seem to have handled it deftly. Back in January 1983, Reagan's public approval ratings had hit a new low. Only 35 percent of the nation's voters approved of his handling of the job, according to the Gallup poll, while 56 percent disapproved.
The situation was particularly scary to Reagan aides because the approval rating of presidents usually drops as the first term draws to a close. It looked as if things could only get worse.
Instead, Reagan's ratings have bucked the usual tide of history. In September 1983, for the first time in months, pollsters found that more people approved of Reagan's performance (47 percent) than disapproved (42 percent). By January 1984 it was 55 to 37. And a week ago, Reagan climbed to his highest level (58 to 38) since the early months of his term.
Three things happened, and every one of them appeared be crucial.
First, the economy turned around. In almost every election, economic news is the engine that moves the polls up and down.
Second, Reagan began to shuck his poor image on foreign policy. As ''Reagan, the diplomat,'' he traveled to China. As ''Reagan, the defender of freedom,'' he rescued the students on Grenada. As ''Reagan, the negotiator,'' he met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko and made a conciliatory speech at the United Nations. As ''Reagan, the peacemaker,'' he traveled to the beaches of Normandy on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
All of this political repair work on Reagan's foreign-policy image worked wonders. Even in Europe, where many people looked at Reagan as a Western cowboy in his foreign policy approach, the American President began to climb in public esteem, and the Soviets found themselves outmaneuvered.
In this country, issues like the ''nuclear freeze'' cooled. Eventually, even Mondale was forced to approve of the Grenada mission.
Third, Reagan got the time he needed. Over and over, Mondale tried to turn his fire on the President. Each time Mondale was forced to pull back and refocus his energies on his own party. In early 1984, Mondale was being pressed by Sen. John Glenn, who had gained on Mondale through most of 1983. After New Hampshire, Mondale had to beat back Hart's challenge.
Two moments in time stand out during this frustrating period for Mondale.
After the Texas caucuses, it looked as if Mondale finally had the nomination locked up. The candidate, relieved of pressure (he thought) from Hart, immediately went on the attack against Reagan. The attacks, however, lasted only a matter of hours. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Hart struck back and won the Ohio primary. Again, Mondale had to drop his Reagan attacks to focus on a foe within his own party.
The other moment was after the Democratic convention. This was a glorious time for Mondale. Speaker after speaker at the convention had dominated prime-time television for one full week, hammering away at Reagan. The polls suddenly tightened, and Mondale's aides felt they could make it a close contest.
Then came the uproar over his running mate, Geraldine A. Ferraro, and her finances. That cost Mondale a precious month.
Looking back, is there one big thing that Mondale & Co. would change? Yes, says one close aide: the Olympics in Los Angeles. That shower of gold on American athletes made voters forget politics, just as Mondale was beginning to roll. And it echoed Reagan's themes - the flag, patriotism, individualism.
The polls show that after the Olympics Mondale never got close.