DENVER — An "angry and defiant" Gary Hart dropped his 26-day campaign for the presidency Friday, denouncing the intense scrutiny of his personal life as an "intolerable situation" for himself and his family.
"I believe I would have been a successful candidate," Hart said in an impassioned 10-minute statement to hundreds of reporters and campaign workers jammed into a hotel ballroom. "And I know I could have been a very good President, particularly for these times.
"But apparently now we'll never know."
The departure of the front-runner left a crowd of distant also-rans to fight for the 1988 Democratic nomination.
Wife at His Side
Hart, whose campaign disintegrated less than a week after the Miami Herald reported about his weekend activities with a Miami model, entered with his wife, Lee, at his side.
"I've made some mistakes, I've said so," the former Colorado senator told his supporters. "Maybe big mistakes, but not bad mistakes."
But, he said, "Now clearly, under present circumstances, this campaign cannot go on.
"I refuse to submit my family and my friends and innocent people and myself to further rumors and gossip. It's simply an intolerable situation."
'Tossing and Turning'
The man who until last week was far and away the Democratic front-runner said he had intended to come to the nationally televised news conference and read a "short, carefully worded political statement saying that I was withdrawing from the race and then quietly disappear from the stage."
"And then, after frankly tossing and turning all night, as I have for the last three or four nights, I woke up about 4 or 5 this morning with a start," he said. "And I said to myself, 'Hell, no!' "
That caused a surge of excitement to ripple through the crowd of supporters, some of whom held to a faint hope that Hart might have changed his mind since deciding Thursday to abandon his campaign.
The supporters, seated in folding chairs, applauded as Hart continued: "I'm a proud man and proud of what I've accomplished."
'I'm Not Broken'
When applause interrupted him again, Hart winced and said, "I appreciate it, but let's get through this."
"I'm not a beaten man; I'm an angry and defiant man," Hart said. "I've said that I bend but I don't break. And believe me, I'm not broken."
Hart's campaign, which had been years in the making but formally opened April 13, began to fall apart Sunday when the Miami Herald reported he had spent most of a weekend with Donna Rice, a 29-year-old Miami actress and model, at his Washington townhouse, while his wife remained in Denver.
"We take no joy in the announcement Mr. Hart made today," Heath Meriwether, the Herald's executive editor, said in a prepared statement.
Hart, 50, has maintained that his relationship with Rice was innocent and that he had done nothing morally wrong. He insisted that his marriage of 28 years was stronger because he and his wife had survived two separations.
But the reports fanned rumors that Hart is a womanizer, rumors that have dogged him throughout the campaign. And in a New Hampshire news conference on Wednesday, Hart refused to answer when asked whether he had ever committed adultery.
The Washington Post reported in Friday's editions that Hart had made his decision to withdraw from the race after the paper presented his staff with "documented evidence of a recent liaison between Hart and a Washington woman with whom he had had a long-term relationship."
The Post quoted a senior Hart aide as saying the Post's information "accelerated the inevitable" withdrawal of Hart from the race.
In his farewell speech Friday, Hart sharply criticized the scrutiny he had received from the press during the last week.
"I guess I've become some kind of rare bird, some extraordinary creature that has to be dissected," he said.
"We're all going to have to seriously question the system for selecting our national leaders that reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted," he said, "that has reporters in bushes, false and inaccurate stories printed, photographers peeking in our windows, swarms of helicopters hovering over our roofs. . . . "
He insisted that issues are more important than personalities and said he had not "spent a lot of time trying to create an image. I am who I am. Take it or leave it."
Appeal to Voters
Since entering politics, Hart said, he had never been particularly good at two things, "Talking about myself and playing the political game."
"I've never felt the voters really cared about either of those things, frankly," Hart said. "They're smart enough to know who you are without you telling them. You look them in the eye, you talk to them and they decide whether you're telling the truth or not."
Throughout the speech, in the same hotel where Hart announced for the U.S. Senate in the early 1970s, Lee Hart stood by, smiling but at times appearing to fight back tears.
Hart called the last week the toughest he and his wife have endured and said the hardest part about his making his decision had been his two children.
"They're more angry and confused than I've ever seen them in their lives," he said. "And very frankly, they're angry at me, their father. They don't want me to get out of this race."