HOW far will the snow squall, or prairie fire, or whatever image best describes the Gary Hart political phenomenon, run? Going into Super Tuesday, with more than 600 Democratic delegates at stake, one wonders: What is this remarkable ''momentum'' made of? Mere media attention? Or more than that?
Much of Hart's sudden attraction is his generational appeal, an emphasis on America's future, a self-confident vigor, an avoidance of ideological narrowness. But even Hart strategists say he may have tapped into something broader and faster moving in public receptivity than the dynamics of his own campaign can explain.
Are we back to the mood of public agitation and volatility that dominated the 1980 race? Remember Ted Kennedy leading Jimmy Carter 2 to 1 at the start of the contest and losing by the same margin?
Are we seeing a repeat, in Mr. Mondale's early faltering, of the rejectionism that overtook Mr. Carter in the closing days of the 1980 election, when Ronald Reagan surged as dramatically as Mr. Hart has in past weeks?
Is the loosening of voter attachments to the major parties, evident in recent general elections, now surfacing in primary campaign stampedes?
Or, among a more upbeat American public, is political enthusiasm back in vogue?
The unexpected Hart flurry -- he is suddenly even with Mondale in national polls, ahead of President Reagan in Gallup's latest match-up -- bears implications for the Republicans too. The President's impressions on voters have so far looked remarkably stable: a slow gradual downturn his first two years, then a steady upturn with the economy's recovery his third year. Analysts had just begun to wonder whether the incumbent Republican might be the one to end the recent string of one-term presidencies. While the public still approves of Mr. Reagan's overall leadership, it does hold doubts about his performance. Americans are more confident about the future; still, they wonder about the federal deficit, the prospects of another recession, war, and whether society will become more fragmented.
Mr. Reagan's core of followers was built and solidified in two decades of hard electioneering. His national campaign in 1980 was run by a cadre of experienced loyalists. This base of commitment is one advantage against a Gary Hart, whose national candidacy for most voters is barely a month old. Right now, while the Democrats compete, Mr. Reagan is reaching to his political base with fundamentalist appeals on national strength and moral values. He's keeping in touch. This could be the prelude to a later appeal to the political center. Both parties need the center, the independents who swing either way. That's where the volatility is greatest.
Every four years something seems to be missing for voters, one theory runs. Politicians sense it in a vague discomfort. Whatever it is, voters seem to find it on their own. It happened for McGovern in 1972, Carter in 1976. Hart's own people can't explain what their candidate has tapped into -- a desire for change , a new perspective. They are saying, to protect against disillusion as Hart's futurism gets scrutinized, that ''there are no new ideas.''
Tomorrow's results in the South, Northwest, and Northeast will show whether Walter Mondale has succeeded in redefining his campaign, whether John Glenn has the stuff in 1984 to carry the fight to the finish, whether George McGovern has been on a nostalgia trip, and how much remains of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaign after his ethnic slur against Jews.
It will also say something about the American public. If people know little about Gary Hart's positions, they can hardly be said to be moved by any specific Hart program. The Hart surge could prove a rootless phenomenon, among voters loosely attached to party, policy, or ideology. Some analysts say this rootlessness -- dealignment, Everett C. Ladd calls it -- is the dominant trend in American politics. Is Hart riding the future? Or like snow squalls and prairie fires in his native Kansas-Colorado territory, will the Hart spectacle disappear as suddenly and unexplainably as it arose?