The Democratic presidential primary contest ends as it began: on a somewhat indeterminate note that - barring strong measures by the party during the weeks and months ahead - could present some particularly difficult challenges to Democrats in their bid to recapture the White House in November.
That is not to say that the Democrats have to go into the general election with the deck stacked against them. Still, the weeks ahead will be important. Two steps seem crucial for the Democrats:
* Given the current rifts in the party - underscored by the roller-coaster pattern of the primary season, with front-runners Walter Mondale and Gary Hart splitting primary victories between themselves - the Democratic party must now put together a platform that sets out a carefully defined agenda for the American people, as well as seeking to link together the disparate elements within the party itself. Unity is essential for victory.
* Further, given the lukewarm support for the two front-runners on the part of many voters, the Democrats should select a vice-presidential candidate who not only unites the party, but draws additional votes.
Why is that? A party leader of towering national stature - a Franklin Roosevelt, for example - could pretty much pick and choose a vice-presidential candidate as he wished, even, as he did in 1944, picking a relatively obscure regional lawmaker from Missouri named Truman. To an extent, that pattern has also been true for some Republicans, such as Dwight Eisenhower. In both cases, it was who was at the top of the ticket - not the bottom - that most mattered to voters. Precisely because the Democrats will not have a towering figure that unifies the party this year - or touches some kind of deeper national fervor - the choice of the vice-presidential candidate seems especially important.
In winning two of the final five primaries (New Jersey and West Virginia), although losing three others, including the key California contest, Mondale has apparently snapped up enough delegates to ensure nomination at the party convention in San Francisco this summer. But what will the Mondale primary season ''victory'' mean? California is the type of pluralistic state that a candidate would reasonably have to capture to win the presidency. President Carter, it should be recalled, lost the California primary to Edward Kennedy four years ago and went on to lose the presidential election.
The evidence seems clear that, for the moment at least, the Democratic Party is divided, both ideologically and geographically. Consider the primary results. Mr. Mondale won over the party loyalists, and took the primaries and caucuses essentially east of the Mississippi River. Mr. Hart won over less ideologically oriented Democrats and independents, and won most primaries and caucuses west of the Mississippi. But he also won some important states east of the Mississippi.
Can a Mondale candidacy yet capture the enthusiasm of the party that will be necessary to go all the way against a popular incumbent President who to a large extent campaigns less on ideological positions than on qualities of goodwill and sociableness?
Many imponderables remain. Will Hart and Jackson challenge Mondale right down to the final convention vote? A D-Day-Normandy analogy seems almost inescapable. Mondale may now be climbing the Normandy beach cliffs, but Hart and Jackson are still pulling at his feet. And Mondale has yet to face his biggest challenge of all: President Reagan, an opponent who delights in campaigning - and tends to do it very well.