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Needs to Persuade Electorate He Was Victim of Unfairness : Attack on Media Seen as Hart's Best Issue

December 20, 1987|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Although Gary Hart has vowed that his resurrected presidential campaign will be about new ideas, most political experts believe the former Colorado senator is really running on one of the oldest ideas of all: resentment against the press.

To win supporters, political professionals say, the former Democratic front-runner must persuade people that his personal conduct does not bear on his public character and, further, that he was a victim of unfair press coverage seven months ago when reports about extramarital relationships led him to withdraw from the race.

"The press is the best issue he has going for him," said William Schneider, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a political consultant to the Los Angeles Times. "It is much better than enlightened engagement or military reform," two of the "new ideas" on which Hart said his campaign is based.

Personal Queries Avoided

And, so far, it appears to be working. After an initial spate of questions in the first hours after Hart reopened his campaign Tuesday, reporters have avoided the personal questions. And Hart and his wife, Lee, have for the most part avoided taking questions of any kind.

The subject came up once when a student in New Hampshire asked Hart about his personal life, and again when another student in Sioux Falls, S.D., got up to say he thought it was terrible how the media had treated Hart.

When a reporter asked Lee Hart if she was surprised that the personal questions were not coming up, she answered: "The people of this country aren't interested in the personal questions. It's the people in your profession."

'Political Sideshow'

Yet Hart is enjoying enormous publicity. And some of it so far has seemed quite fawning. After following Hart to schools, where students are too young to vote but respond enthusiastically to the appearance of a celebrity, the New York Times reported Friday:

"The Washington experts may be dismissing Gary Hart's 'citizens' campaign' as a strange political sideshow. But, out in America, many people appear to like the no-frills, no-apologies effort, and that is making some of the other Democrats very nervous."

Implicit Challenge

The challenge implicit in Hart's campaign is not restricted to the press.

"He's going after the whole institutional framework of modern presidential campaigning," including the pollsters, fund-raisers and political consultants, said Frank Greer, a prominent Democratic consultant. "Of course, that is a necessity because he has no staff and no money to hire any. So he decided to make a virtue out of the necessity, and I think that has populist appeal."

Running against the press is a familiar tactic for controversial politicians. It was an important theme in the presidential campaigns of George C. Wallace and a strain in the campaigns and presidency of Richard M. Nixon. More recently, it has been a favorite theme of embattled Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham.

The irony in Hart's case, however, is that to run a campaign as he intends without much money or organization, he must rely almost entirely on attracting free press coverage.

'Wants It Both Ways'

"He wants to have it both ways," said Howard Simons, director of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. "To run against the press you have to use the press."

For the most part, despite enjoying enormous coverage, Hart has managed to avoid answering questions. He has not held any press conferences and departs without taking questions at his campaign stops.

After a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, sitting across the aisle from Hart on a plane, tried to strike up conversation by asking, "How's it going?" Hart campaign worker Sue Casey came up and said: "Thank you for asking just one question."

The Harts then closed their eyes and pretended to be asleep.

Hart has laced his speeches and appearances with jabs at the press, as he did in his appearance Tuesday night on ABC's "Nightline":

"No one owns the nomination and no one owns the right to run for President--including, if I may say so, the political press of this country," Hart said.

'A Wave of Sentiment'

"He is riding a wave of sentiment in this country that the press has gone too far," said Carter Askew, a political consultant who has worked with many of the nation's leading Democrats. Public opinion polls suggest that Americans are troubled by the media's recent disclosures about plagiarism by former Democratic candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr., marijuana smoking by former Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg and the premarital conception of Republican candidate Pat Robertson's first child.

"But, if the press backs off, they will be confirming that yes, this was unfair--and Gary Hart was the victim," Askew said.

Some papers do appear cautious at least in their public pronouncements about how they will deal with Hart's new candidacy.

The Miami Herald, whose report that Hart had spent a weekend with a Miami actress and model led to Hart's withdrawal last May, issued a terse statement:

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