The political story in Washington State is the struggle by Democratic contenders for the supporters of former presidential candidate Alan Cranston. Before the New Hampshire primary, Senator Cranston and Walter Mondale had by far the best political organizations in this state. Cranston's decision to quit the race set in motion a scramble between the Mondale camp and the rapidly emerging forces of Gary Hart.
Within days, both sides claimed significant converts, but there is a feeling here that many Cranston supporters may stay uncommitted when they meet March 13 in precinct caucuses across the state.
Washington State figures to be an important battleground on Super Tuesday, March 13, because it is the first Western state of any size to vote, and because its 70 Democratic convention delegates represent the second-largest bloc of delegates from the West, after California.
Of those, 41 delegates will be chosen in the caucuses held March 13 and later in legislative and US congressional caucuses in April. They, in turn, will elect the remaining delegates at the state convention, based on the percentage of votes gathered in the caucuses.
In the battle for Cranston supporters and other Washington voters, the Mondale campaign still has the advantage - despite Senator Hart's momentum.
All sides in the Democratic contest agree that Mr. Mondale has a superb state organization. His chief representative here, Steve Duncan, has been in the state since April and has had a formal campaign headquarters and a paid staff of 10 in Seattle since November. In addition, the Mondale forces have campaign offices in Spokane, Olympia, Tacoma, and Everett. Unions in Washington have also been active, calling members and reminding them to attend the caucuses.
Mondale also has the support of all five Democratic congressmen from Washington as well as the support of Seattle Mayor Charles Royer.
Hart is clearly playing catch-up here, but he is coming on strong. His forces began beefing up their organization about two months ago, moving several prominent people from Hart's Senate staff and his national campaign staff to Seattle. Where the organization had only five paid workers two months ago, it now has 11, matching those of the Mondale forces. They include several organizers moved to Washington State from Iowa shortly after the caucuses there.
Hart has the potential for considerable appeal here, in part because he is a fellow Westerner, and in part because his international outlook and ''futuristic'' approach appeal to many segments of Washington's electorate. After the Iowa caucuses, Hart quickly picked up the endorsement of Seattle's third-largest newspaper, the trendy ''The Weekly.''
But compared with Mondale, the Hart forces here are still spread pretty thin, party insiders and other observers say. The campaign has yet to make a strong impression outside of Seattle, except for some activity on college campuses.
And the Hart campaign leaders themselves are predicting that he will at best achieve only a very strong second-place finish here.
None of the other candidates still in the race for the Democratic nomination has made much of an impression in Washington. Supporters for Sen. John Glenn closed up shop here about two months, before the Iowa caucus. Jesse Jackson is said by party leaders to have a chance of gaining delegates in only a handful of the more liberal Seattle legislative districts.