Until two weeks ago, Gary Hart's presidential campaign existed in Alaska in name only. Now, John Grames and Bill Parker, Senator Hart's Alaska coordinators, have been racing the clock to today's Democratic caucuses, trying to catch up with the organizing edge held by Walter Mondale's forces. They're being helped by the Hart surge that has swept up from the lower 48 states since the candidate's wins in New England and the South. But the material support has been lagging.
''We still have only two Hart campaign buttons,'' Mr. Grames says. ''Everybody sends all this stuff (campaign materials), but it never gets here. So we cut little hearts out of red paper and pin them on. Politics can be fun, as long as it's not politics as usual.''
How Alaska's precinct caucuses will turn out is anybody's guess. There have been no statewide political polls since the New England primaries and caucues.
But pollster Marccq Hellenthal, a Democrat and longtime observer of the Alaska political scene, says Mr. Mondale holds the edge for winning most of Alaska's 14 convention delegates. But, he adds, a key unknown is how Alaskans will react to the results from Super Tuesday.
''Hart is the new kid on the block. He's only caught on in the past couple of weeks,'' Mr. Hellenthal says. ''Mondale's been out for three or four months. If I had to make a guess, I'd expect Mondale to win, but I expect it to be a good race.''
While Mondale is getting some help from local affiliates of the national organizations that have endorsed him, he hasn't won any statewide endorsements, says Bart Garber, a lawyer coordinating Mondale's campaign in Anchorage.
Dianne O'Connell, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, says the race in Alaska is between Mondale, Hart, and Jesse Jackson, who is showing strength in the interior city of Fairbanks and in some neighborhoods of Anchorage and Juneau. He is believed to be attracting most of the state's 5 percent black population and a share of Hispanics, Filipinos, and other minorities, as well as some white liberals and women, Ms. O'Connell says.
Referring to Mr. Jackson's successful trip to Syria in January to obtain the release of an American Navy pilot, she said: ''Similar to New Hampshire for Hart , I think the Mideast for Jackson really kicked off his organizing effort.''
The party's executive director, Bev Isenson, says John Glenn's campaign appears to have fizzled. ''There was much more interest in Mr. Glenn last summer than there is now,'' she says.
The Glenn and Mondale organizations initially geared their campaigns to what was to have been Alaska's first presidential primary. Last year, the Alaska Legislature scheduled the election for March 13, Super Tuesday, which would have made it the first primary in the West.
But the expected national interest and candidate visits never materialized. Alan Cranston was the only presidential hopeful to journey to Alaska. Mr. Jackson had a trip scheduled but canceled it because of his Syrian trip.
The primary also faltered over a unique feature of Alaska politics - more than half the voters are registered independents. This year, the Legislature grew reluctant to spend $1 million on an election primarily for the 25 percent of the electorate who are registered Democrats. The election was canceled.
If it weren't for the spark that Hart injected into the campaign, the caucuses likely would have received meager attendance, says pollster Hellenthal. Distance and attitude separate Alaska from the rest of the country, and local issues predominate, he says.
''It wasn't that many years ago when we got national (TV) news a day late, and it wasn't many years before that when we didn't get it at all,'' Hellenthal says. ''We're kind of an island up here.''
Voters also tend to attach parochial concerns to national issues, he says. Glenn led Mondale in polls conducted last fall partly because of Mondale's association with President Carter, an enemy to many Alaskans for ''locking up'' vast blocks of the state in national parks and preserves, Hellenthal says.
In addition, the Alaskan delegation to the San Francisco convention in August accounts for less than one-half of 1 percent of the total number of delegates. In the past, Alaska delegates have gone to conventions uncommitted, in the hope of being courted.
Since the state is second to called on in the alphabetical roll call, it was thought that the Alaska delegation could command some power from candidates trying to build momentum.
But changes in national party rules will probably dictate that most of Alaska's delegates will be committed to a candidate when the state party convention is held in Sitka in May.
''The odds that we'd every be the swing votes in the national convention are a billion to one,'' says Hellenthal.
Alaskans will have to be content with being in the limelight for one day, today, a day without other Democratic contests.