No one will be watching the Super Tuesday election results with more interest than AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts.
These are some of the big names of the Democratic Party establishment. They are all Mondale men. And their reputations as movers and shakers within the party are riding on Walter Mondale's strength in the nine states that vote today.
Gary Hart's meteoric rise threatens to turn their best-laid plans into mounds of confetti.
''They all jumped into the race too early behind Mondale,'' a senior adviser to Senator Hart says. ''We tried to warn them of the dangers of early endorsements.''
It was the hope of party leaders that Mr. Mondale would wrap up the nomination quickly, then turn his energies, and those of the party, toward the fall race with Ronald Reagan. That neat scenario quickly fell apart in New Hampshire.
Now Mr. Mondale may be fortunate just to hang on through the primaries in April, May, and June.
This isn't the first time in recent years, however, that the party leadership has been undercut by its own Democratic voters, or that New Hampshire has turned a favored front-runner into an also-ran.
It happened in 1972. Remember George McGovern, whose chances were rated near zero by the insiders? Then in 1976 there was Jimmy Carter, an outsider who didn't even show up in the public-opinion polls until the 11th hour.
This year, though, could be the greatest embarrassment in memory for some of the big and powerful who hold sway within Democratic ranks.
Among those lined up solidly behind Mondale, besides those already mentioned, are the United Automobile Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, United Mine Workers of America, and AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees).
There's also NOW (the National Organization of Women), Americans for Democratic Action, and the Newspaper Guild.
Added to those is a host of big names from Congress as well as statehouses and city halls across the country. There is Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, Gov. William A. O'Neill of Connecticut, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, and many, many more.
It's a Democratic galaxy of stars. Ironically, all this glittering support may have done more to darken Mondale's hopes than any other factor.
Exit polls run by ABC-TV have discovered that one of Mondale's biggest burdens is what is seen as his lack of independence.
Hart does not have from that problem. On Capitol Hill, in fact, one of the major criticisms of Hart is that he's a ''loner'' who keeps to himself and doesn't play the game that other politicians do.
''They may not like that trait of Hart's in Congress. But down here in Georgia, that sounds pretty good to some people,'' a Democratic official says.
All this may tell us something about the Democratic Party, and why it has had such a tough time in recent years capturing the White House. Various analysts point out that ever since the days of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic Party has been at odds with itself - unsure of its mission.
Austin Ranney, a middle-road Democrat who is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, calls the party a ''grouping of special interests, each with nonnegotiable demands.''
A Georgia Democrat, speaking privately, frets that the leadership is altogether too cozy with special constituency groups such as the trade unions and feminists. The Democratic voter doesn't like it, this Georgian says. Even many trade-union members don't like it. They proved that in New Hampshire when union members bucked their own leaders by giving Hart more of their votes than Mondale.
''What the Democratic voters out here in the countryside want,'' the Georgia official says, ''is a party that demonstrates its independence. That is exactly what Gary Hart's strength right now proves.''
Mondale, recognizing this weakness, has scrambled to get on the right side of the issue. But in Sunday's nationally broadcast debate from Atlanta's famous Fox Theater, Mondale tripped once again when he said:
''I said I'm going to stand up for special-interest . . . uh, against special-interest groups.'' The politically savvy Atlanta audience roared with laughter.
The Sunday debate here - the final meeting of all the candidates before the most active week of the political season (6 primaries, 14 rounds of caucuses) - may have been crucial to Mondale's prospects, as well as those of John Glenn, Jesse Jackson, and George McGovern.
No great breakthroughs were scored in the debate. But a number of those in the audience, including overseas journalists, felt that Mondale came off somewhat better than Hart.
The Colorado senator seemed thrown off balance through parts of the debate as each of the four others took shots at him. Mondale was particularly aggressive in criticizing Hart's record in Congress.
Hart has run on the slogan of ''new ideas'' for America. Mondale got the biggest laugh of the day when, after listening to Hart talk on econonic policy, he said:
''When I hear (Senator Hart's) new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?''