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Hart's Return Hurts All Other Democrats in Race

THE RUNNING ARGUMENTS: This is the second in a biweekly series surveying the presidential campaign and candidates.

December 20, 1987|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — Gary Hart is back. The Democrats are panicked and the analysts are dumbfounded. Hart's entrance is likely to be the shortest running comedy, the longest running tragedy or the shrewdest campaign move in recent political history. It all depends on how long his revival lasts.

Clearly it is a setback for his Democratic competitors, furious over Hart's decision. And not just because they have to run against an experienced, media-savvy candidate. Hart's presence underscores the current field's weakness. He leaps to the top of the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. It emphasizes that "undecided" is the preferred posture among Democratic voters. It further splinters the field and makes it that much more difficult for other candidates to get across a distinctive message. And it may open the door a bit for another late entry.

The only bright spot for the field is that Hart's re-entry will shine the media's light--and presumably the public's attention--on Democrats. Unfortunately, the stories may glimmer with a nostalgic throwback. The Character Issue will crowd out arms control. Questions of which women and when will outshine Republican disarray, Democratic proposals and any substantial debate on issues. The scramble is on.

Hart may believe he can win but his overriding motive is personal: To vindicate his reputation by letting the voters and not the pundits pass judgment on him.

Notwithstanding, he re-enters with some advantages. Hart was the front-runner when he left the race and his name recognition remains higher than any other candidate. His decision to restart in New Hampshire was calculated because of his proved voter base there. Recent polls in New Hampshire have shown the front-runner, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, dropping in strength while undecided Democrats make up 50% of the party voters, twice that of any single candidate. Polls taken immediately after Hart's re-entry showed him a strong second to Dukakis, picking up most of his support from the undecideds.

Hart is likely to gain some points with the voters for what he has been through, even some admiration for taking the difficult step of getting back in. And "taking on the press"--as he will do--is not an unpopular stance. Next to Hart himself, the political press has had as rough a year as anyone. Going around the media to let the people decide is a solid message with populist appeal.

But these pluses are likely to prove only a short-term help. Hart is a candidate without a campaign. Whatever popularity he has with voters must be converted to convention delegates for him to win. His staff has largely scattered to other campaigns or is in permanent retirement from electoral politics. Budget and fund-raising are formidable obstacles to be overcome. Meeting the filing deadline in the large industrial states is the first hurdle for his non-existent staff. That means completing this tricky political task by Jan. 5 in Pennsylvania, Jan. 8 in Ohio and Jan. 13 in Illinois, to name three.

Although the news of Hart's re-entry appears bad for Democrats, it might prove beneficial. His presence may unify the party. By doing well in New Hampshire, Hart might quickly force the race into a three-man contest between himself, Jesse Jackson and one survivor from the rest of the field. At that point, the party will unite in an "Anybody but Hart" move since it is problematic that he is an electable candidate in a general election. If the survivor from the original six does beat Hart, the nomination is his. If the survivor cannot stop Hart, enormous pressure will be mounted to draft a new late entry.

This may all be beside the point. In a curious phrasing in his declaration Hart said that if elected he wanted his "epitaph" to read, "He educated the people." Hart may have concluded something about his campaign at its start. Winning candidates don't need epitaphs.

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