WASHINGTON — The Miami Herald reported Sunday that a news team that staked out Democratic presidential front-runner Gary Hart's Capitol Hill town house determined that a young woman from Miami spent Friday night and Saturday with him while his wife was in Denver.
Hart, whose campaign advisers have been debating for three weeks how to deal with questions of alleged "womanizing," denounced the story as "preposterous" and "inaccurate."
Hart said he is the victim of "character assassination" by unethical and "outrageous" journalism that is "reduced to hiding in bushes, peeking in windows and personal harassment."
The paper, which spread the story across the top of its front page, said that a team of five Herald and Knight-Ridder reporters kept the front and rear entrances of Hart's town house under surveillance for more than 24 hours from Friday evening until Saturday night. They said they saw Hart and the woman enter the house about 11:15 p.m. Friday and saw no one leave or enter until Hart and the woman came out at about 8:40 p.m. Saturday.
Approached by the reporters later Saturday night, Hart denied having any "personal relationship" with the woman, denied that she had spent the night at his house and said that she had come to Washington to visit friends.
He said that the woman, identified by the Hart campaign as Donna Rice, was in his town house for only a few minutes and that she and a female friend from Miami had stayed at the home of William Broadhurst, a Washington attorney and friend of Hart's. Telephones at Broadhurst's office and home were not answered Sunday.
Called Several Times
Hart told the reporters, however, that he had called Rice in Miami several times in the last two months from campaign stops around the country. He described the calls as "casual, political," and said he did not know what her occupation is.
"The story in its facts and in its inferences is totally inaccurate," Hart's campaign manager, William Dixon, said in a statement. "Gary Hart will not dignify it with a comment because it's character assassination. It's harassment. He's offended and he's outraged. He's furious. He's a victim. Someone has got to say at some point that enough is enough. . . ."
"As you know, Mr. Hart has suggested the press follow him to disprove the allegations on womanizing," Herald Executive Editor Heath Meriwether replied in a statement. "We observed Hart's town house for more than 24 hours from a respectable distance and we conducted ourselves in a professional manner throughout. We never engaged in the practices suggested by Mr. Dixon. The womanizing issue has become a major one in Hart's campaign because it raises questions concerning the candidate's judgment and integrity. That's why we reported on this story."
The story appeared just three weeks after Hart formally announced his candidacy. During that time, he was faced with questions about womanizing and his unpaid $1.3-million debt from his 1984 presidential race. His advisers had hoped that the focus would move on to substantive issues.
Coincides With Poll
The story's publication also coincided with an Iowa Poll showing that Hart has increased his enormous lead over rivals in that state, which will hold the first 1988 presidential caucus. His share of the vote increased to 65% from 59%, followed by Jesse Jackson with 9%, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) with 7% and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts with 3%.
Sunday's New York Times Magazine also featured a cover story about Hart that quotes him on the womanizing issue: "Follow me around. . . . I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'd be very bored."
Hart supporters speculated that a great deal now depends on the reaction of Hart's wife, Lee, from whom Hart was separated in 1979 and 1982.
"If it's true, it's incredibly self-destructive because it means he's been womanizing all the time he was denying it," said one supporter and contributor.
"It's potentially devastating because the skidding may not stop," said another Democrat. "People could be coming out of the woodwork, an airline stewardess here, someone else there."
Dixon, Hart's campaign manager, expressed confidence that the voters would see the story as false and react accordingly.
"If fair people are given the opportunity to reach a fair conclusion, then we're not afraid of it," he said. "This raises the whole question of journalistic ethics. It raises a question of at what point the question becomes character assassination."
Dixon said Sunday that Hart apparently met Rice last New Year's Eve in Aspen, Colo., at a party hosted by Don Henley, a member of the Eagles rock group. He said that Lee Hart was with Hart at the party.