South Carolina listened for a clear message from its Southern neighbors on Super Tuesday,'' but heard only a garbled one. So Democrats in the state will go to caucus meetings Saturday guided by their own, often uncertain leanings in the campaign for a presidential nominee.
The presidential race has almost bypassed them, since most of the candidates avoided the home turf of the popular Sen. Ernest Hollings. Since he bowed out, South Carolina has been left in a quandary.
Jesse Jackson, born in the state, has a core of support within the black community. And in only two weeks a spirited, grass-roots effort for him has appeared almost from nowhere and with almost no funds.
But the big winner on Saturday is expected to be Mr. No-name: The state has a long tradition of picking uncommitted delegates.
Indecision is so much in the air among party regulars here that even at a nominally pro-Mondale party in a prosperous suburb, supporters spoke in tentative terms.
''I'm not a die-hard,'' says Patricia Rawlins, a partner in an advertising firm who sported a pin for Walter Mondale.
''I guess of all the candidates, he's the best. None of them are that electric. He's the more qualified.''
The group takes only mild interest as the television reports on Mondale's Super Tuesday primary win in Georgia. Elliott D. Thompson, who heads the state's alcohol control board and who hosted the party, concedes, ''I don't think anyone is that committed.''
His statement is confirmed when, as he listens with surprise, his wife, Elinor, a precinct president, confesses that she is still on the fence ''thinking about Gary Hart.''
As elsewhere, Mondale's strength is with the party establishment. ''He has stood by the Democratic Party,'' says Dwight Drake, former political adviser to two of the state's governors, who calls Mondale ''the best one of the pack to be president.''
In stark contrast to the assemblage of longtime Democratic activists is a downtown law office where the TV is also delivering primary election returns. This event is no party, however.
The some dozen people sitting around the conference table are mostly young professionals who are having more than a social gathering. When the news announces that Florida and Massachusetts have gone to Gary Hart, a cheer rings out briefly. Then the group continues with the work at hand - fanning the Hart brush fire in South Carolina.
Nearby volunteers operate 20 phones, calling prospective Hart supporters and urging them to attend the caucus meetings Saturday. In fact, there are many more volunteers than telephones, so some are sent home with lists of people to call.
Present at the strategy session is a national Hart campaign staff member, Monty Ellington, a former Hollings worker from Charleston, dispatched to South Carolina only a few days earlier. He reports that supporters had already begun working spontaneously, so that in only 90 minutes of calling, ''we had six field offices.''
Senator Hollings gave the fledgling Hart campaign a big boost with his endorsement, and Hart has picked up the support of Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. of Charleston. But Mondale continues to have much of party establishment.
''We didn't go after the big-name endorsements,'' says Billy Oswald, a Columbia attorney who is the volunteer state coordinator for Hart. ''We went after the people out at the grass-roots level, and the endorsements followed.''
Mr. Oswald, who says he first began watching Hart's career in 1972, hits hard at the charge that Hart's ideas have no ''beef.''
''A year ago everybody was criticizing Gary Hart because he was too issues-oriented,'' says Oswald. ''A year later we've got people criticizing Gary as a tinsel candidate.''
He adds that when a caller demanded to know what Hart's new ideas were, he answered her by sending a four-inch stack of Hart position papers.
''It's ridiculous to say that Gary Hart has no beef to his campaign,'' he says, but he concedes that he would like to see Hart be less defensive when challenged on the subject. ''It's hard to tell why I felt the momentum had slacked up a bit,'' he says.
Oswald and other observers expect ''uncommitted'' delegates to win the lion's share of votes this weekend.
''It would be a mistake for the Hart people to even attempt to get people committed,'' advises James E. Clyburn, commissioner for human affairs for the state and a leader in the black community who is himself uncommitted.
Moreover, although Hart has attempted to avoid an ideological label, many folks in this conservative state remember his early years as a Vietnam war opponent and presidential campaign manager for Sen. George McGovern in 1972.