Gary Hart's staff is concerned that the senator is losing the war of words with Walter Mondale. This verbal defeat has been terribly costly, they say. In the past two weeks, the senator has dropped nine consecutive primaries and caucuses.
Over the weekend, he lost again. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Mr. Mondale split most of the vote in the Virginia caucuses. And in Mr. Hart's native Kansas, Mondale again came out on top.
Hart needs a victory desperately.
Connecticut, which votes tomorrow, could be the place. The Hartford Courant, in a poll published on Sunday, showed the senator out front 48 to 28 percent. But even a triumph there will buy him only a little more time to begin winning the political debate with Mondale.
In New York State, for example, Mondale has put Hart on the defensive with the huge Jewish community, which is so important in that state's Democratic politics.
''We have to turn around the dialogue in this campaign,'' says a Hart insider. ''In recent days, Mondale's attacks and our own mistakes have taken over. Our own message has gotten buried. And it has hurt.''
Hart staff members say they feel the New York vote April 3 will be won or lost on this debate.
In the past few days, a strategy session of top Hart advisers looked for ways to turn things around.
Among those at the meeting were two US senators now helping with the campaign , Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.
A major conclusion of that meeting, according to insiders, was that Mondale's greatest vulnerability in the liberal Northeast may be foreign policy.
Said one participant: ''It's a question of, Who is Walter Mondale on foreign policy?''
Hart is being advised to link Mondale to the old school of Democratic foreign policy - to those same Democrats who got the United States bogged down in Vietnam.
Mondale may also be tied to the failed Vietnam policies themselves through his mentor, Hubert H. Humphrey.
It will be charged that Mondale is always too anxious to go along with the crowd - and to show deference to those who have helped him in his political career, whether that was former Vice-President Humphrey, President Jimmy Carter, or AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland.
''A lot of liberals get upset when Mondale goes into his panderer routine,'' a Hart adviser observes.
Hart also is being urged to take Mondale to task for his early reluctance to attack President Reagan's policy in Lebanon.
This kind of Hart offensive will have two effects, in the view of the senator's strategists.
It will put Mondale on the defensive. And it will send a message to party liberals who are looking for a champion against the hawkish, military-oriented foreign policy that they claim is being followed by Mr. Reagan.
''Gary wants to run a positive campaign,'' says one Hart adviser. ''But it is clear that we also need to point out these places, such as foreign policy, where there is a contrast between the senator and Mr. Mondale.''
Failure to do this soon enough, the Hart camp says, lost the race last week in Illinois. Hart went from six points ahead to six points behind in Illinois in the final few days.
''Allowing Mondale to dominate the dialogue beat us,'' a Hart staffer says. ''It preempted us from getting our positive message out. We were not seen talking about new leadership.''
Despite the widespread publicity about Hart, an adviser observes, ''there are a lot of questions out there about who Hart is. Voters are waiting to get a better handle on him - what he's all about. We have to turn the debate away from what Mondale is saying and toward our own message.'' The adviser continues:
''The outlook in Connecticut is good. We feel confident. We have a good organization. And our campaigning there has gone well.
''But New York could be a different story. New Yorkers are skeptical people anyway, and they won't vote for someone they don't know something about,'' the adviser says. ''New York is going to be tough, even among voters in the state who see Walter Mondale as sort of Midwestern 'hokey.' ''
A final word about Connecticut: Despite the polls, Mondale has not given up. The Mondale staff, in a last-minute decision, will send him into New Haven today for one more try.