CONCORD, N.H. — Gary Hart, whose presidential ambitions were derailed by a sex scandal earlier this year, re-entered the Democratic presidential race today in a stunning turnabout seven months after withdrawing. "Let's let the people decide," he said.
"I have the power of ideas and I can govern this country," Hart said on the Statehouse steps in New Hampshire with his wife, Lee, at his side. "Sometimes the best thing to do is what you feel you must do."
Hart's decision stunned Democratic leaders and drew a less-than-warm response from his fellow candidates.
Party National Chairman Paul Kirk was one insider who didn't sound pleased. Kirk said that Hart hadn't consulted him and that he saw no reason for the former Colorado senator to re-enter the race.
Republican Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. expressed "delight" at what he saw as a sign of "disillusionment and confusion" in the Democratic Party.
Michael Muftic, Democratic national committeeman from Hart's home state of Colorado, said, "I wonder if he is in a middle-age crisis. . . . Who does he think he is?"
Strolls Main Street
After formally filing as a candidate in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, the on-again candidate strolled down Concord's main street, shaking hands, trailed by a mob of reporters.
Asked whether his former relationship with 29-year-old Miami model Donna Rice would affect his renewed candidacy, he said: "I don't think so. We're going to leave it up to the people."
His wife, Lee, said they are willing to endure the rigors of a campaign "because I believe in this country and its future. Whatever grief (they experience) is nothing compared to what is important."
Hart was the clear-cut front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination when he quit the campaign last May, and he is rejoining it at a time when the six declared Democratic candidates are still struggling to generate national support.
He stated his respect for his once and present rivals and said he was sure they will "respect my right to make my case."
'Going Direct to People'
"This will not be like any campaign you have ever seen, because I am going direct to the people," Hart said in a brief statement.
He made no direct reference to the scandal that forced him from the race last spring. But he said: "Getting back in this race is about the toughest thing that I have ever done. And believe me, it is not done lightly."
Hart said he has no campaign funds or polls or staff but said: "I have something even better, I have the power of ideas. And I can govern this country."
Hart's downfall came last spring after he dared reporters to "put a tail on me." The Miami Herald did just that, putting his Washington town house under surveillance one weekend in May and uncovering his involvement with Rice.
He had repeatedly denied that he would re-enter the Democratic race, even as recently as last week.
Financing and Filing
Hart's renewed candidacy raises technical questions about financing and state filing deadlines.
At the Federal Election Commission, spokeswoman Karen Finucan said it will be up to Hart to seek a ruling on whether donations he received earlier this year will be eligible for matching federal campaign money.
She said Hart reported raising about $2.1 million during his candidacy, although it is not clear how much of that will be eligible for matching funds if the former senator wins a favorable ruling from the commission.
Between now and Jan. 15, Hart will have to race to meet presidential filing deadlines in 15 states.