If Walter Mondale is going to halt Gary Hart's romp toward the Democratic presidential nomination, Georgia will be one of the best places to do it. Georgia, with 84 delegates at stake, is one of the biggest prizes next Tuesday when Democrats vote in nine states.
Mr. Mondale, whose ties to Georgia grew closer during his years as Jimmy Carter's vice-president, has just about everything going for him in the Peach State.
One of the most important is the Carter connection. On Saturday, down in Plains, they've scheduled a big, outdoor barbecue - just to emphasize the old ties to Mr. Carter.
The former President still enjoys respect and affection here among many Georgians. Hundreds of these Carter loyalists are ''bending arms'' all over the state to bolster the Mondale vote Tuesday.
The second important element working here for Mr. Mondale is the black community.
At midweek, he won the stamp of approval from Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., his father.
Their support is added to that of Georgia state Sen. Julian Bond; Jesse Hill, a prominent Atlanta businessman; and Atlanta City Council members John Lewis, James Howard, and Myrtle Davis, all blacks. Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young has not endorsed Mondale; but words of praise from the mayor are included in a letter signed by Mrs. King and sent out Wednesday to black voters in the Atlanta area.
All this is vital because Mondale needs to halt any drift of black votes toward the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The present guess among Mondale strategists here is that Mondale and Mr. Jackson will split Georgia's black vote about 50-50.
Mondale also has labor working for him, as in other states. And he enjoys the support of Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, who has an extremely effective state political apparatus.
Will all this be enough?
''The state is so unsettled after that cold shower in New Hampshire that no one is sure,'' says Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden Jr.
Political analysts, however, have detected some movement among voters since New Hampshire. Gary Hart appears to be picking up support among young, white-collar professionals in the Atlanta area. Among that type of voter was exactly where his strength started to build in New Hampshire last month. Other voters later followed their lead.
Another unknown in the race is the impact of the news media. Gary Hart's face beamed from the covers of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report after New Hampshire. Senator Hart's name is trumpeted on front pages of newspapers every day. His face is seen morning and night on the local and national news broadcasts.
One Mondale worker grumbles: ''It's almost as if Dan Rather were Hart's campaign manager.''
All this free publicity is a crucial part of the Hart strategy. His real campaign manager, Oliver Henkel Jr., knows he can't buy enough TV time to turn the tide in Dixie. So he's hoping to ride a tidal wave of free media attention into victory.
This is what is behind Hart's barnstorming schedule, which has him flying from airport to airport in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama to hold press conferences in every major media market. The strategy seems to be working well.
Hart's paid TV campaign in the South is a nonideological appeal. He repeats his ''new ideas'' theme and says he thinks the South is as ready for new ideas as any part of the country.
Mondale hopes before primary day to show Hart as a cool, noncommitted politician who doesn't share his enthusiasm for such issues as civil rights.
At a meeting of Atlanta black ministers, Mondale noted Hart's newest book, ''A New Democracy,'' ''never mentioned civil rights in 180 pages.'' Hart responded, ''Fritz Mondale knows I am just as committed to civil rights as he is.''
The battle between Hart and Mondale has pushed John Glenn out of the media spotlight in Georgia. But Senator Glenn is known to have strong support in some areas of Georgia, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the state.
At one time, Mr. Glenn was expected to be the winner here. He still predicts victory in the state. ''I don't think the South is going to be stampeded by what happened up North,'' he says.