It is five down and one to go for for Gary Hart in New England. But the region's final test of the senator's popularity among Democratic voters - the March 27 Connecticut presidential primary - may be his toughest.
Backers of Walter Mondale are determined to win the state's contest, in which 35 of 60 delegate seats are directly at stake. While Connecticut might not be considered pivotal to Mr. Mondale's campaign, the state's primary is highly visible because it is the only one held on that day, and it comes a week before the important April 3 New York primary.
What the ''stop-Hart'' strategy will be Mondale team leaders are not saying, although those close to the scene say it may include at least a couple of days of in-person campaigning by the former vice-president in the state during the next week and a half.
Elated over Senator Hart's primary victories in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Florida, his Connecticut forces are cranking up their operations.
The state headquarters were just moved from Mansfield, the home town of campaign coordinator Jonathan Pelto, to the state capital of Hartford. Mr. Pelto , a senior at the University of Connecticut, views his candidate as ''particularly good at putting his message across,'' something which ''should help a lot.'' The senator is expected to campaign in the state the day before the primary.
Thus far, Hart, like the other Democratic candidates, has spent little time in the Nutmeg State. Other than last November, when he spent a couple days touching base around Connecticut, his only stop was March 10, when he picked up the endorsement of United States Sen. Christopher Dodd (D).
''We have a lot of work to be done, but we have effort, energy, and enthusiasm on our side,'' Mr. Pelto asserts.
Although Mr. Mondale has not been in Connecticut for several months, he does have the support of many of the state's better-known public officials. Gov. William O'Neill is the former vice-president's Connecticut coordinator. Also in his camp is former US Rep. Toby Moffett, three of Connecticut's four incumbent Democratic congressmen, and many of the party's legislative leaders.
These endorsements, however, are at least partly balanced by the boost given the Hart candidacy from Senator Dodd, a popular Democratic liberal.
Some veteran political observers suggest that Mondale's prospects for a win in Connecticut may hinge substantially on whether union leaders in the state, where organized labor has been especially influential, can deliver to Mr. Mondale heavy support from within their ranks.
The failure of such efforts elsewhere in New England, most notably in heavily unionized Massachusetts and Rhode Island, clearly weakened Mondale's cause, it is generally agreed.
In a poll conducted in late February, both before and after the New Hampshire primary, those surveyed before the Granite State vote favored Mondale, 32 percent to 18 percent, over Hart. Those questioned following the primary results chose Hart 45 to 36 percent over Mr. Mondale, with and 5 percent for Jesse Jackson. The poll was conducted by the University of Connecticut's Institute for Social Inquiry.
Mr. Jackson has not visited Connecticut recently, and there is no Jackson headquarters, according to Connecticut Democratic state chairman James Fitzgerald.
Of the 60 Connecticut delegates to next July's Democratic national convention in San Francisco, 35 will be chosen directly, through the March 27 preference vote in the state's six congressional districts. Those delegates will at a later date choose the 25 at-large delegates.