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?
In 1976 on the Republican side it looked as though Gerald Ford had it all wrapped up. For the sake of party harmony, Ronald Reagan was urged to drop out. But Reagan won the North Carolina primary and ran up a string of victories that sent the race to the convention in doubt. The Republicans never have had a binding rule for delegates, and there were no major defections. Ford won after Reagan's last-minute attempt to name a running mate in advance. Ford picked Robert Dole for his ticket. Reagan in 1980 accepted George Bush, his chief but decisively beaten competitor, after exploring the notion of a Reagan-Ford ticket.
How a nomination race is run has a lot to do with how much party harmony can be mustered later.
We still think the tightened Democratic race is on balance healthy. Each individual primary tells something about national considerations, as well as something about local politics. Certainly Jesse Jackson's presence on the ballot in Illinois - home state of Jackson's Operation PUSH - keeps the interests of minorities to the fore. Jackson's presence, plus the vagaries of Chicago city politics, should make one cautious about reading the Illinois outcome as a decisive Hart-Mondale test. Next week, Connecticut with its penchant for independent voting could well swing to Hart. After that it's New York, then Pennsylvania. And weeks later, Ohio, New Jersey, and California, all notorious swing states.
It should be the overall pattern, not just the week-to-week bounce, that should be followed. Some analysts are seeing ''two Democratic parties'' emerge in 1984 - a coalition of working class and senior Democrats backing Mondale, a younger and upwardly mobile set of Democrats for Hart. Others see the nation's economic map imposing itself on the race: Mondale stronger in the upper Midwest, the farm and industrial regions beset by structural problems or not fully recovered from the recession; Hart ahead in growth areas like Florida, and the high-tech suburban belts around Atlanta and Boston.
There probably are many ''Democratic parties,'' that defy horse-race or prize-fight analysis - much as one should be modest about oversimplifying 1984 Republicanism in social, regional, or economic terms.
Let's let the 1984 race itself describe 1984 politics, and resist the rush to judgment.