IRVINE — Tuesday a political bombshell exploded in New Hampshire--and in the Democratic Party. Like a bad penny, former Sen. Gary Hart(pence) had turned up and filed as a candidate for President. After forking over $1,000 and signing a form or two, he emerged from the Statehouse to meet the media and announce his reborn candidacy of no money, no organization, only ideas.
For the Republicans it's a godsend. Instead of their guys being the object of press scrutiny over differences in support for the President's Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty, front pages and life-style pages are reserved for Hart and his friends. The soap opera continues.
A year ago, Hart qualifying for the New Hampshire primary would not have been news. But along the way came the merry month of May, Donna Rice and the "end" of Hart's front-running campaign.
Cynics speculate that Hart is after the money pot in federal matching funds awaiting his renewed campaign. This is a factor--a man able to cut his debts by at least half would be well advised to do so. Hart has, however, in addition to a large dose of vanity, a more personal reason for returning. As a published novelist he wants, if not redemption, at least the opportunity to rewrite the last chapter of his political book, believing he can do it better than the Miami Herald--philosophy, not philandering.
He may want to talk about his vision of the future but the vision people remember is the reporter standing in the back alley of Hart's Capitol Hill town house, scoping his weekend fling. Every reporter on the campaign trail knows that vision and also knows he stands a better chance of getting his 90 seconds on the evening news if it shows Hart blowing up when asked for the third time that day the momentous question, "What was Donna Rice really like?" than if it shows Hart chopping wood. Sorry Gary, people forgive--they don't forget.
What gives Hart his shot is the incredible political weakness of the six other guys who stayed in the Democratic race for President. Hart may fancy himself the "white knight" that Democrats have been hoping would rescue them from their pedestrian field. In reality, he is the seventh dwarf.
Overnight polls show pretty good numbers for Hart. He is a factor. One such survey of New Hampshire Democrats by Peter Hart, an excellent pollster, shows Hart in a good position--as close to front-runner Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis as he is to third-place Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois. Even in that field, it's impressive. These numbers show Hart will be around for a while if he can take the heat.
Hart cannot be elected President next November, period. The American people are willing to elect and re-elect Presidents who provide grist for Johnny Carson's monologues. They are not, however, going to elect someone whose name evokes snickers. The Hart campaign is at best an exercise in futility (excepting the debt-reducing funds and increased speaking fees) and at worst a circus freak show exhibit akin to the two-headed calf. This year it's not a question of "where's the beef?" but "where's the Rice?"
What is real in his re-entry is the damage he will do to the Democratic Party's chances in 1988. The damage, while not fatal, appears at least chronic. Every time the seven Democrats get on a TV stage, there will be Hart and the others. All the images will come back--Bimini and bimbos--and the jokes told. The Democrats on stage and the Democratic Party everywhere will baste in his juices.
This is a dilemma that may cause a candidate or two to sort him out in public or stay off the stage. Perhaps Ann S. Lewis, former Democratic Party national political adviser and now a Jesse Jackson adviser, summed it up best when she said, "It only reinforces the perception that the Democratic Party process is not to be taken seriously."
That is a condemning description. It's no wonder Republicans cannot contain their yuletide glee. The "high plains drifter" has returned in time to play Marley's ghost for 1987 and to un-merry Christmas for the Democrats. There are now six Republicans and seven Democrats running for President. Thirteen is supposed to be an unlucky number, but it looks pretty lucky now for the GOP.