EXETER, N.H. — Gary Hart's revived presidential campaign is literally evolving hour by hour as the candidate and his wife, Lee, drive across New Hampshire, shaking hands, signing autographs and adding campaign stops almost whimsically.
As Paul Georgio, one of the few people working for Hart full time, explained it Wednesday, the attitude is: "Want to stop here and meet and greet some folks? Fine. Stop the car."
This lack of planning and standard campaign advance work is possible because Hart is now as much a celebrity as a candidate. Television crews follow him everywhere. Men and women in shopping malls look startled--and usually pleased--to see Hart and his wife headed their way with big grins and outstretched hands.
"I was standing there in the optical store and I see this guy out of the corner of my eye and I think: 'Is that Gary Hart?' " said Barbara Whittemore, who had come from her home in Wells, Me., Tuesday to shop in Newington, N.H. "I said: 'Nah, it can't be.' But it was. I had to go over and meet him."
As Hart stood shivering in the early morning cold at a nuclear submarine facility in Kittery, Me., Wednesday, employee Mary Steele said: "I'm glad he's back in the race. I don't think he should have gotten out in the first place. What happened was none of the public's business," she added in a reference to Hart's withdrawal in May after reports that he was seeing Miami model Donna Rice while his wife was out of town.
Whether all of this will translate into votes is uncertain. He is the front-runner in polls of Democrats but he also evokes the most negative reactions in the same surveys. Yet, as Hart moves into full-time campaigning after his dramatic re-entry into the race on Dec. 15., one thing is clear: He is not the same kind of candidate he was early last year.
Although he was once angry with the press for reporting on his "womanizing," he kidded Wednesday with three Washington columnists who have written harshly about him.
Hart now calls his wife "babe," even when the television cameras are not present, opens car doors for her and, unlike in the past when he virtually ignored her, pays attention when she talks.
Once generally aloof toward voters, he now pumps their hands, asks for their help, stoops to talk to their children.
Liberated From Apparatus
Lee Hart said Wednesday that she and her husband felt liberated from the huge campaign apparatus he had assembled last spring before he quit the race.
"Everybody (campaign volunteers) is having so much more fun with it this time around because they themselves are relaxed," she said. "You get these corporate operations that campaigns have become . . . but this is really much more fun.
"People sense this . . . . People are fed up with . . . all of the hotshots trying to make a candidate into something he wasn't. They were turning Gary into an object, not a human being."
She disputed reports that she had to be talked into backing Hart's desire to get back into the race. "The only thing that concerned me was support," she said, but then said she had been reassured by "thousands upon thousands of letters from people all over the country begging Gary to get back into the race."
Almost everyone the Harts encounter in New Hampshire is friendly and encouraging--at least to their faces. But there have been some naysayers. One man shouted an obscenity as he drove past them. And Exeter teacher Katie Scott told reporters that she thought many people were still not satisfied with Hart's mea culpa , in which he says he made a "damn fool mistake" in the Rice incident but does not think that it disqualifies him from governing the country.
Interview at Restaurant
Both of the Harts appear to be loosening up steadily. On Wednesday, even Hart's vow not to grant long press interviews melted in the snows when he suddenly agreed to an interview with reporters as he sat beside his wife in an Exeter restaurant.
At one point, he made a self-deprecating reference to the Rice affair, saying: "When I mess up, I mess up on a grand scale."
When asked to lay out his strategy for becoming a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, Hart--known for his political canniness--professed no interest in grand strategy. He said that, when he had spoken earlier in the day at Portsmouth High School, all of the students' questions were about issues.
"The people want to know how I would go about governing the country, not how I would go about winning," Hart said. "That's horse race stuff. Who cares?"
"The theme of this campaign will be the national interests, (not) special interests. "Part of the education process (of the campaign) is that the voters need to understand that they owe the country something. They at least owe it their votes. My themes are going to be responsibility and citizenship. And if they don't vote for it, then I'll go back to Kittredge (Colo., his home) and live happily ever after."