Walter Mondale is like a pitcher who just can't get the inning over with. Every time he gets two strikes on Gary Hart, the Colorado senator digs in his cleats, grits his teeth, and hammers the ball over the fence.
Senator Hart saved his sagging campaign once again in this week's primaries - and just in time. He slammed a single in Indiana, and blasted what the umpires are calling a home run in Ohio.
Before Mr. Hart's solid hits in Ohio and Indiana, some pundits were predicting the Democratic game was over. Hart had not won a primary since March. His finances were running low (he's $4.5 million in debt), and morale among his staff was drooping.
''It was tense around here,'' says one Hart insider.
Hart's twin victories will throw the presidential game into extra innings, which was something that Mr. Mondale desperately wanted to avoid.
The Ohio and Indiana primaries got most of the spotlight in the news media, even though Mr. Mondale scored impressive wins the same day in Maryland and North Carolina. Only two weeks ago, Mondale's own private polls had shown him behind Hart in North Carolina. In Maryland, however, the outcome was never in much doubt. What does it all mean?
For one thing, Mondale now faces a serious tactical problem.
The former vice-president wants to turn his fire on President Reagan. But once again, the focus of Mondale and his staff will have to be almost exclusively on Hart. He will be forced to get tough, to attack Hart's record and Hart's credentials, and to fight Hart right through California on June 5 and possibly into the national convention in July.
Mondale's top aides said Wednesday that that is just what they plan to do. They will be playing hardball in these waning days of the campaign, out of sheer necessity.
Does this mean Mondale could lose the nomination?
Probably not. Various delegate estimates indicate that Mondale has more than 1,500 delegates. He is inching ever nearer to the 1,967 delelgates needed to win the nomination.