If the past is any indication, Walter Mondale had better put on his political armor for the next four weeks. Just look what happened to other Democratic front-runners at about this time in the campaign:
In 1980, President Carter had been through a bruising battle with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. Mr. Carter was assured of the party's nomination, but then lost five of the final eight primaries.
In 1976, Carter, then almost unknown, stunned the party by defeating some of its strongest candidates in state after state. It was clear he would be the party's choice. But in the late primaries, he was drubbed in California, Oregon, and Montana.
In 1972, George McGovern came out of nowhere and led an army of antiwar youth to victory after victory. But he stumbled across the finish line with three defeats in the final eight primaries.
Once again, we're near the finish. There are seven primaries and one statewide caucus to go. And the word to Mr. Mondale from Democratic leaders is: Watch out! Things don't look too friendly out there, especially west of the Mississippi.
The next round of voting comes tomorrow in the Oregon and Nebraska primaries. On May 24, Idaho holds its caucuses. Then the primary season ends with a bang June 5 with voting in California (the year's biggest, with 345 delegates at stake), New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, and West Virginia.
Here's a quick rundown of the outlook, based on talks with top aides in both the Mondale and Hart campaigns:
Oregon. Sen. Gary Hart is favored. His strategists claim this state is almost certain to be in their column, and it's hard to find anyone who will argue with that. Campaign manager Oliver Henkel Jr. says Senator Hart leads in his own private polls there by a ''significant'' margin.
Nebraska. This looks like another Hart state. One week ago, a newspaper poll showed Hart with 39 percent, Mondale with 34 percent, and Jesse Jackson with 6 percent. Mondale aides don't concede the election, but when Nebraska is mentioned, they prefer to change the subject.
Idaho. Hart country.
South Dakota. Probably Hart again.
New Mexico. Mondale - maybe. He has some of the same things going for him in this state that he had in Texas, including the Hispanic vote, which has been almost solidly behind him.
West Virginia. Mondale country.