Montana will pit union loyalty against Western sensibilities in Sunday's Democratic caucuses. Observers agree that the momentum of Gary Hart's presidential campaign has created a race in Montana that by all rights would not have existed if Walter F. Mondale's opponent had not been a Westerner.
The Big Sky State has a large labor constituency - 42,000 active and retired union members out of a total population of only 800,000. Mondale's campaign consists of an AFL-CIO and Montana Education Association phone bank plugged directly into the union rank and file.
''Montana is different from the Rocky Mountain states in that it mirrors the Eastern states because of its very organized constituency groups. Women, environmentalists, labor, and agriculture groups carry more organizational weight than in surrounding states. The state has a long history of labor activism because of the domination of large corporate interests here in the mining industry,'' says Tony Jewett, executive director of the state Democratic Party.
Mr. Mondale's labor coalition would easily have swept the state just a month ago, admits Hart volunteer Tom Daubert. Just a week and a half ago the Hart campaign couldn't even find people who wanted to help with the campaign, says Jim Tulley, state co-coordinator for Senator Hart.
In a straw poll at the state Democratic convention in November, Mondale received 42 percent of the vote to 16 percent each for Hart and John Glenn (who withdrew from the race after Super Tuesday) and 15 percent for Jesse Jackson. But Hart's successes in early primaries and caucuses have sparked the interest of environmentalists as well as those who find the younger candidate more attuned to the land, water, and energy issues close to the hearts of Westerners.
Blake Wordal, state coordinator of the Mondale campaign, acknowledges that Hart has gained ground, especially after Super Tuesday victories in Oklahoma, Florida, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts confirmed that support for him was more widespread. In addition, Mr. Jewett says he suspects that any support for Senator Glenn would probably go to Hart now, because the Colorado senator is considered the moderate.
Though none of the candidates have plans to blaze any campaign trails through the state to bid for the mere 19 delegates up for grabs, there's no lack of excitement there. That excitement hasn't been blunted by the results from Tuesday's balloting in Illinois and Minnesota. Mondale's victory in his home state of Minnesota was expected, and political observers say that the former vice-president's win in Illinois was not decisive enough to sway the solid Hart support in Montana.
''I'm sensing in the field an independence of mind among (union) membership, '' says Mr. Jewett. This would indicate some powerful Hart support, observers note, because this is a caucus state where union discipline hangs heavy on members, who must vote publicly. It could mean that disgruntled union members will stay home rather than risk crossing union leadership by attending caucuses and voting for Hart or Mr. Jackson over Mondale. A light turnout, experts say, would tend to favor Hart.
But the turnout is hard to gauge because in Montana the caucus system is being used for the first time (it was imposed by the Democratic National Committee). Various turnout forecasts range from 5,000 to 20,000.
Montana traditionally backs Republican candidates for president. But observers suggest that Hart would run stronger against Mr. Reagan than would Mondale. Assuming that the state would swing toward a Westerner, they say, Reagan would beat Mondale. But Hart presumably could win the swing vote that is prone to going Democrat, especially if that constituency was given the added incentive Hart provides as a Westerner.