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Let the race run

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THE Democratic side of the presidential election equation might not be settled until the national party convention in July. American voters - and the three surviving Democratic contenders - should take a close look at this prospect.

The Democratic drama so far has been cast as though one contender or another might go for a quick knockout. First a premature crowning of Mondale after Iowa, then Hart's surge in New Hampshire with Mondale on the ropes until Super Tuesday , now Mondale's recovery after the Michigan caucuses. Today all eyes are on Illinois.

This impatience to pick a winner looks more and more likely to be frustrated by events. More important, it could also undercut the public's understanding of what the 1984 electorate is really saying.

It could prove just as likely that the two front-runners, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart, could trade successes all the way to the California primary finale on June 5. They could go to the convention in a near deadlock. With challenges to some state delegate slates and the fact under new party rules that no delegate will be bound to a candidate by the results of the primaries, the outcome could defy the quick knockout predilection of the campaign's coverage so far.

Even if Mondale continued to hold his 3-to-2 lead in delegates, a defeat at Hart's hands in California and national polls showing Hart continuing to do better than Mondale against Ronald Reagan could produce a lot of pressure at the convention. At the least, a delegate-rich Mondale might be forced to take Hart as a running mate - or vice versa if Hart leads. Some serious observers even muse that the current candidates might exhaust themselves by summer and a fresh candidate be brought on to unify the party. Given these possibilities, what sense does it make for the candidates to batter one another in campaign ads and negative, week-to-week, knockout-style debate?

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