GROVETON, N.H. — Gary Hart abruptly suspended his Democratic presidential campaign today in the midst of the continuing uproar over his weekend encounter with a young actress and model that has all but engulfed his candidacy.
Hart, who had entered the race little more than three weeks ago as the clear front-runner, maintained that his candidacy will continue. But in a statement read by a staff member, Hart said, "While running for President is important, right now my family is more important."
The statement was read by his press secretary, Kevin Sweeney, to a group of reporters gathered near a paper mill where Hart had been scheduled to make his first campaign stop of the day. Instead, at the time the announcement was made in this northern New Hampshire town, Hart was already aboard a chartered plane headed back to his home in Denver, with his wife, Lee.
Her arrival Wednesday to join him on this campaign trip after being absent for a day from his entourage at first had seemed to represent a badly needed boost for the beleaguered candidate. Lee Hart joined her husband in making the decision, apparently reached late Wednesday night, to break off his campaign without setting any date for returning.
Influenced by News Conference
Campaign aides suggested that the Harts had been influenced by a news conference Wednesday in which every question touched on the implications of Hart's relationship with Donna Rice, the woman whose visit to his Washington town house touched off the current controversy. The questions included point-blank queries on whether Hart had ever committed adultery and whether his marriage was monogamous. He declined to answer, although he said he did not have sexual relations with Rice.
At his next event, a meeting with local citizens in a community center, there were no questions about the town house episode. But Hart aides complained that so many reporters crammed into the meeting room that some townspeople could not get in.
All this was talked about by Hart, his wife and several of his aides at dinner Wednesday night at a nearby Vermont hotel. "There was a discussion of how we weren't getting anything done, we weren't getting anything out," said one senior Hart aide who was present. "I think there was a sense that this thing just wasn't going to go away today or tomorrow and there wasn't anything really being accomplished."
A few hours later, about 1 a.m. today, Hart phoned press secretary Sweeney and told him: "Lee and I plan to go home and here is a statement I want you to read."
'Cause Will Succeed'
The statement said "Today , Lee and I are returning to Denver, to our home and our family. We are going to take a few days, or a few weeks, to be together. This campaign, and the ideals and ideas it represents will continue and our cause will succeed."
The statement left his campaign in a state of limbo, but Hart's aides stressed that the statement kept his candidacy alive.
Here in New Hampshire, the state where Hart first vaulted into national political prominence with his upset victory in the 1984 presidential primary, his state coordinator, Susan Calegari, said: "We are going to go on with the campaign. There are a great many people still committed to Gary Hart."
But Hart's campaign workers appeared to face a difficult task in sustaining enthusiasm among rank-and-file supporters, and particularly in continuing to raise funds, without an active candidate in the field.