Voters throughout Vermont will attend local caucuses tonight to choose who they feel should receive the Democratic Party's nomination to run for president against Ronald Reagan later this year.
But state coordinators for the three Democratic candidates all say they are facing uphill battles in their efforts to generate voter interest in the caucus process. And with the candidates themselves apparently more concerned with coming primaries in the big Western states, the campaign workers' jobs in Vermont won't be made any easier.
''Things are lying so low, it is really going to be a sleeper,'' says Mique Glickman, state coordinator for the Jesse Jackson campaign.
On March 6, in a nonbinding ''beauty contest'' that brought national attention to Vermont, Gary Hart defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide victory. Senator Hart received 71 percent of the vote to Mr. Mondale's 20 percent. Mr. Jackson got 8 percent.
The nonbinding vote drew national interest because of Hart's emergence in the early New England primaries as a viable front-runner in his race against Mondale. Before the primaries, former Vice-President Mondale looked to be unstoppable.
But now the national spotlight has gone West. And it has been left up to the Vermont campaign staffs of Hart, Mondale, and Jackson to get out the vote.
Campaign workers say many Vermonters thought the March 6 vote was all there was to the Vermont primary. All three camps have been working for the past week to spread the word that the earlier vote was only a well-monitored popularity contest.
The real selection process for Vermont's 17 delegates to the Democratic National Convention will begin tonight in local caucuses, where 1,530 delegates will be selected statewide. The local delegates will then attend a May 26 state convention, at which 13 seats to the national convention will be apportioned, according to the support each candidate receives at the state convention. The other four seats are reserved for Democratic Party officials.
According to political observers, the largest and most well-organized of the Vermont campaigns is being conducted by Ken Dean, state coordinator for Hart.
''You really can't take anything for granted. You have to keep at it,'' says Mr. Dean.
He is concerned that if Hart does not win big in Vermont tonight, it might appear that he has lost support in the state. He is also concerned that there is no guarantee that tonight's results will even remotely reflect the March 6 landslide.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter beat Democratic challenger Edward Kennedy in a 3-1 landslide in the nonbinding primary election, only to be defeated by the Massachusetts senator 3-2 in the local caucus votes.
Political observers say such a turnaround is remote this year. The Mondale campaign closed up shop the day after the March 6 defeat. Not a single paid Mondale staffer has set foot in the state since, observers say.
In the meantime, the position of state coordinator for Mondale has been taken over ad hoc by Kathy Hoyt of Norwich, who is using her kitchen telephone to try to drum up support for Mondale.
She says she would be ''ecstatic'' if Mondale simply matched his 20 percent showing in the earlier beauty contest.
''I know there has been a lot of Hart effort aimed at getting a lot of people to go to the caucuses. That puts us at a real disadvantage, because we haven't had that effort,'' Ms. Hoyt says.
Ms. Glickman says the Jackson camp will be introducing local resolutions across the state during the evening caucus sessions in an effort to motivate Vermont residents who might not otherwise attend the meetings. The aim is to rally support for the resolution among potential Jackson voters.
Dean says he's concerned that unless there is a big turnout tonight, the caucuses will be decided by the local Democratic officials who traditionally attend and control the party caucuses. He said that among established Democrats, Hart and Mondale have roughly equal support.