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Hart Seen Undermining Party Race : Could Be Unelectable Front Runner; Republicans Gleeful

December 16, 1987|KEITH LOVE and ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writers

McALLEN, Tex. — Gary Hart's dramatic renewal of his quest for the presidency threatens to undermine, rather than broaden, the Democratic search for a presidential nominee, top party leaders and political analysts said Tuesday.

The six other Democratic candidates, who gathered here on the Texas-Mexico border Tuesday for their 14th debate of the campaign, have yet to stir much excitement. But Hart's entry may bring the wrong kind of attention.

"It adds confusion, which is exactly what the Democrats don't need," said William Schneider, political consultant to The Times and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "They need clarity. If Hart becomes a front runner based on name recognition, then they have two front runners, Hart and Jesse Jackson, neither of whom is electable."

Not surprisingly, the Republicans were gleeful.

"It seems only fitting that during the Christmas season . . . the Democrats would be visited by the ghost of candidate past," said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., chairman of the Republican National Committee. "What it really shows is the disarray of the Democratic Party going into 1988, when a man who, in effect, resigned from the race in disgrace feels that he can come back and win the nomination."

Hart re-enters the campaign with some assets. He has higher name recognition than any of the candidates now in the race, with the possible exception of Jackson. He can try to exploit the sense of ennui that some attach to the present Democratic field. And he can count on nearly $1 million in federal matching funds.

But he has no organization and faces filing deadlines in 17 states in the next month. He has yet to answer a flock of questions about his dalliance with Miami model Donna Rice and about reports of other extramarital entanglements. He left the presidential campaign last May denouncing the political process for overemphasizing personality, and it is not clear how he plans to come to terms with this problem.

Los Angles Deputy City Atty. John Emerson, Hart's former deputy campaign manager, predicted that in the the next few weeks Hart "is going to be skewered by the press and the political Establishment . . . . Quite frankly, there's going to be some ugly things written in the next few weeks. The political Establishment obviously doesn't like this (re-entry)."

For example, Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. said, "I had said initially after the story of his withdrawal from the race that I thought he did the right thing. And I haven't heard from him yet in terms of the reasons for getting back in, and, until I do, I'll sort of leave it with my initial statement on it."

Ed Campbell, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and still an influential party leader, flatly predicted: "He won't do anything in Iowa.

"I don't know if he's imbalanced or not, but I just think he got political cabin fever. It's really too bad for him and his family that he will subject them to that."

Anti-Establishment Feeling

It may be possible for Hart to capitalize on an anti-Establishment feeling, said Patrick H. Caddell, a former political strategist who worked for Hart in 1984.

Polls have shown consistently that most people did not think Hart should have quit the race and that he was driven out by the media, Caddell said. "It all depends on what kind of hearing voters give him." Schneider agreed that "the best issue he has going is anti-press sentiment, although it won't win him the presidency."

Caddell called the decision a "gutsy, gutsy move," and he predicted that Hart "is going to do better than anyone expects."

Washington political consultant Robert Squier, who is neutral in the 1988 race, said that "if he finishes second in New Hampshire, he's born again." But Squier doubted that that would occur. Hart "has become the subject of dirty jokes, and, when they start telling dirty jokes about you, you've had it," he said.

It is not clear where in the Democratic Party Hart can turn for support. Former California Democratic Chairman Larry Lawrence of San Diego said Tuesday that "I think I can still raise some money for Gary," but most of Hart's former backers have aligned themselves with other candidates.

'Some Remnants Left'

"There are some remnants left, but I don't know how many of them Hart can get," said Joe Trippi, formerly deputy campaign manager of the Hart campaign and now deputy political director for the presidential campaign of Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt.

"My guess is that, if someone takes a poll in the next few days, Hart will show up near the top, just because of name recognition," Trippi said. "But he is going to find it a lot harder to build a coalition than he thinks."

Part of the problem is that many of his new liberal ideas not only are no longer new, most of them have been co-opted and modified by other candidates in the Democratic Party's post-New Deal era. "The ideological spectrum that Hart is reaching for is already covered by the candidates in the race," Trippi said.

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