CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Gary Hart took his phoenix-like presidential campaign to the Frontier Shopping Mall here Monday, but about the weightiest thing the Democratic contender dug into was the chocolate chiffon cake shoved in front of him by the manager at Wyatt's cafeteria.
Accompanied by his wife, Lee, the former Colorado senator pressed through a lunchtime crush of surprised shoppers, enthusiastic well-wishers and television cameras as he shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures with youngsters. He took few questions from the press and dwelt little on the new ideas he vowed to stress in announcing the revival of his campaign last week.
"Need your help," Hart said over and over as he was pawed by a sea of outstretched hands. "Thanks for coming. Let the people decide."
Wyoming will hold party caucuses on March 5, just three days before the crucial Super Tuesday battery of primaries and caucuses in 20 states.
If anything, the mall excursion underscored how much the retooled Hart campaign has, so far at least, traded less on the candidate's intellectual depth than on his star status.
"We sure haven't talked a lot about issues in the last week," said Wyoming Democratic Chairman Muffy Moore as she watched Hart. "This is just celebrity. It's curiosity . . . any celebrity would create the same excitement as you see here."
Maybe so, but the scene highlighted a startling turnabout in the political fortunes of Hart, who was widely considered the Democratic front-runner when he suspended campaigning last May amid charges of philandering.
On Monday, the Harts drove themselves up the 90 miles from their home near Denver. They got lost trying to find the mall and arrived about 45 minutes late.
Although many in the crowd had just dropped by for last-minute Christmas shopping, many others had driven out solely to see the Harts. "This is the biggest I've ever seen," a mall security official said of the crowd. "Bigger than even for Santa Claus."
Many who showed up said they admired Hart's courage for standing up to critics of his conduct, but most acknowledged ignorance of any of the policy initiatives he has touted. "I think it's great," said Jenell McKenzie of Cheyenne as she waited for Hart to arrive. "Ain't nobody needs to know all your business."
Not everyone was so forgiving. Cathy Sitzman, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, said Hart is "acting like morals don't mean anything." Sitzman, a political economics major who supported Hart in his unsuccessful 1984 presidential drive, said: "You're supposed to be able to look up to politicians. She (Lee Hart) has got a lot of patience. I would have left him."
Every Bite Recorded
The Harts dropped by the cafeteria for a few minutes where six television cameras and a host of photographers captured them sipping coffee and munching sweets while a boom microphone recorded each slurp from overhead.
Talking briefly to reporters before leaving, Hart was asked to outline specifics of reform agendas he has called for in education, economics and military programs. He called for the implementation of a $10-a-barrel oil import fee to pay for upgraded school programs, but referred questioners seeking more details to policy papers and speeches he had made.