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Hart Supporters in County Not Sure Whom to Back Now

May 09, 1987|CLAUDIA LUTHER | Times Political Writer

South Orange County developer David Stein, one of Gary Hart's strongest supporters nationally, had been with his candidate on the ups and downs of the presidential campaign trail for the last six years. Friday morning, he took a 6:30 a.m. flight to Denver to be with Hart as the campaign came to a halt.

"When we understood there was going to be an announcement this morning . . . people dropped things and got on a plane," Stein said Friday of himself and other supporters. "We didn't know why we came. We just wanted to be close to friends."

Stein and Christopher Townsend, a business associate of Stein and also a strong Hart supporter, were among a group of about 25 who stood behind Hart as he held his last press conference as the leading contender for the 1988 Democratic nomination for the presidency. Saying he could no longer carry on a discussion of the issues, Hart pulled out in the wake of news stories this week that that he had spent the weekend with Donna Rice, a model from Miami.

Partly as a result of Stein's and Townsend's efforts, Hart had done well in Orange County in his attempt to gain the 1984 nomination, which he eventually lost to Walter Mondale. For that race, Hart raised $250,000 in Orange County and won 22 of 23 delegates to the Democratic convention. According to county Democratic Chairman John Hanna, Stein's efforts on Hart's behalf won him a prestigious seat on the Democratic National Committee and Hart's national finance council--Hart's inner circle.

This time around, things also looked good. Although some who had supported Hart in 1984 had turned to other candidates, already more than $30,000 had been raised for Hart in Orange County and events were being planned to boost that figure much higher.

Stein said it was too soon to begin to think about what candidate Orange County Hart supporters would turn to now.

"Gary said many times this is not a campaign of an individual but a campaign of ideals," Stein said. "All of us will take the time to really evaluate those in the field, and those who might join the field, who might represent those ideals and try to recapture the enthusiasm we had. It will be very difficult."

According to political consultant Harvey Englander, the person most likely to benefit from Hart's withdrawal is Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

"Gephardt has spent a lot of time here courting the people who he knew were already for Gary Hart," Englander said. One of them who came over to his campaign was Mike Ray, who now is raising money for Gephardt.

But Ray said he found no comfort in the removal of Hart as a candidate.

"It's awful," Ray said. "I was expecting to be able to beat Hart, but not like this."

Hanna said that the 1988 campaign is still so far off that "the only lasting impact will be on Gary Hart."

"There are plenty of other candidates to rally around," Hanna said. "It's wide open and I'm sure Orange County is a prize plug for all of those candidates."

Some of the Democratic leaders who had supported Hart said they are not sure what they will do now.

"That's tough for me," said Stuart Karl, Orange County co-chair of the Hart campaign and a 1984 Hart delegate to the Democratic convention. "I'm not political by nature. I was inspired by Gary."

Karl said he would "look for direction from Hart supporters" such as Stein and Townsend.

Stein said Friday, in a telephone call from Denver, that it was "very difficult to focus on anything except the friends here." He said the scene there was something like a good wake, with all the attending grief and humor.

During one moment he had alone with Hart, "I said I would do it all over again, even if I knew it was going to end today, because we had built great friendships and we accomplished a lot." Stein said Hart responded with humor. "He said, 'I don't know many people crazy enough to come across the country to see the end of a campaign.' "

Now what? Stein was asked.

"Now we find a bar," Stein said. "Now I plan to get as drunk as humanly possible."

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