For Rocky Mountain Democrats, the most disappointing part of Tuesday's elections is not that Walter Mondale lost but that the national party doesn't seem to realize why.
The split between ''new ideas'' Democrats and old-line party regulars, emphasized by Sen. Gary Hart's bold challenge of Walter Mondale, looks like a gaping hole after Tuesday's whopping defeat.
Democrats from Rocky Mountain states say they represent a geographic concentration of a fiscally conservative, socially liberal ideology held in pockets throughout the United States. They view the party split as a chance for Washington outsiders to get a foot in the door.
Some Democratic Party officials who felt snubbed by the national party actually welcomed the Mondale defeat as a chance for the neoliberals to wrest party control from weakened party leaders.
''Americans in the West can't identify with the Washingtonian mind-set of the party,'' says Patrick Shea, Utah state Democratic chairman. He says that when the Utah delegation to the Democratic National Convention wound up without enough floor passes, the seeds of political party dissent were planted.
Mr. Shea met several other Western state delegation leaders who were short of floor passes, too. They found out that the tickets had been given to ''Washington party officials,'' he says. That group of disgruntled Western Democrats ''has been meeting ever since,'' Shea says.
''It was the height of absurdity, but it was indicative of the problem'' that the Democratic Party has ignored the West, he adds.
''There's a big lesson in what happened Tuesday,'' says Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. ''The Democratic Party has got to let down the drawbridge and move out of Washington and discover America.''
''Democrats thrive in unlikely parts of the country: the Sunbelt, the Far West, the Middle West,'' he says. The chairman-elect of the Democratic Governors' Association adds that ''all the governors feel we've got to open up the Democratic Party and expose it to what's happening in the rest of the country.''
Democrats in the hinterlands ''get reelected year after year after year, often in the face of landslides for (Republican) presidents,'' says Governor Babbitt. He and other Western Democrats are convinced they can redirect the national party. Party leaders have a ''credibility'' problem stemming chiefly from their big-government/big-spending philosophy, he says, adding: ''They think it's 1934.''
Party orthodoxy has been that ''if you don't agree 100 percent with the party line, you don't belong,'' Babbitt says. But Rocky Mountain Democrats, at least, say they ''won't sit still'' for another round of Washington-establishment leadership of the party.
Colorado, which has produced the crop of neoliberal politicians led by Senator Hart, is a hotbed of party dissent. ''There was a certain ambivalence to the potential for a Mondale victory, because it would stop a revolution in the party,'' says Colorado Democratic chairman Floyd Ciruli.
''Until we have a presidential candidate that can win in the West, we cannot win nationally,'' he asserts. Politically independent Colorado is a perfect target for national Democrats because ''the Colorados of this country are not a geographical place, but a state of mind. Voters here are less partisan, likely to swing (their votes); they're problem-solvers who are pragmatic and not looking for strong ideologies.''
The success of Democratic ''new ideas'' candidates who play to the economically conservative but socially liberal voters here is evident in Colorado officeholders like Hart, Reps. Timothy E. Wirth and Patricia Schroeder, and Gov. Richard D. Lamm. Elsewhere, the successes of such Democratic neoliberals as Babbitt and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey are examples the national party should consider, says Mr. Ciruli.
''A battle for the soul of the Democratic Party has begun,'' observes Governor Lamm. He says the party's problem has been with leaders who say ''play it again with a bigger megaphone; . . . they say it isn't the product, it's the sales pitch.''
National party candidates have been rejected consistently in the West, while local Democrats have done well, Lamm notes. The situation begs examination by the national party, he says.
Known for an intellectual independence that sets him apart from run-of-the-mill party politics, Lamm questions whether social and economic problems can be addressed by a centralized political party. He says he's ''not interested in counseling the Democratic Party,'' but he notes that there are three things to be accomplished: The party should establish the image of being a wealth- and job-creating source; it should quit catering to single-interest groups; and it should take the lead in reforming those ''actuarial nightmares'' it created, such as social security and medicare.