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Gary Hart: First in the Party Polls and Last in the Hearts of Fellow Candidates

January 10, 1988|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal

Heading into a pivotal Iowa debate next Friday, Gary Hart has his Democratic competitors just where he wants them: confused, concerned and uncertain about how to deal with him.

Much as the others would like to ignore Hart in the Des Moines Register debate this week, they realize they can't--if for no other reason than that he is guaranteed a major share of press attention. More important, the central argument of Hart's born-again candidacy--that no other candidate has offered a convincing vision of how he would run the country--constitutes a frontal assault on all of them. "What Gary Hart is basically saying is these guys can't cut the mustard," said a senior adviser to another Democratic candidate, "and they have got to take on that premise at the basic foundation."

The candidates understand it would be a mistake to ignore Hart for another reason: In this debate he is dangerous. Hart has always been dangerous in debates; at the Register session four years ago he dropped an ultimately devastating bomb in Walter F. Mondale's candidacy by asking him to name one issue where he disagreed with organized labor.

Now Hart is more dangerous because he has already lost everything a politician can. After throwing away a clear shot at the Democratic nomination, and behaving in a manner that opened his personal life to jabs from Johnny Carson and photo spreads in the National Enquirer, the consequences of a debating faux pas can hardly look threatening. "You've got a guy who has nothing left to lose," said former Hart aide Joe Trippi, now deputy campaign manager for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo). "He can roll the dice or lob a grenade under the table."

Despite the bombardment of negative press on his return--"the political equivalent of the last scene of Bonnie and Clyde," said one Democratic operative--Hart seems serene. He is now running the campaign he wanted. Hart chafed against the requirements of a front-runner's campaign, the need to court officeholders, woo fund-raisers and listen solemnly to parochial concerns of powerful constituencies. In staff meetings last spring, he wondered aloud why he couldn't just drive around Iowa and New Hampshire in a van, talking to voters. During this summer of discontent, Hart cleaved to the belief that he fell largely because he had, for 20 years, challenged the political Establishment. Now he has reconstituted himself as the outsider raging against the ossified system. Absent the racism, he has become the yuppie George Wallace.

All of that sharpens the problem the other candidates face. Privately, each campaign is angry. But each fears Hart would only be strengthened if they all turn on him at the debate. By attacking Hart, "you're basically playing into what Hart wants his image to be . . . that the Establishment is treating me bad," said Trippi.

Moreover, at this point the candidates feel they cannot raise their most obvious argument: Hart has demonstrated flaws in judgment sufficient to disqualify him from the presidency. "You play with fire with that," said the senior adviser to another contender. "I think he's won this first battle by saying, 'who are you to throw stones. Let's let the people decide.' " So what's left to Hart's competitors is taking on the former senator on his own terms--challenging whether his ideas are more compelling than everyone else's. Several hope to use Hart as a foil. Gephardt plans to resume the argument over free trade with the clear ideological opponent he has lacked since Hart dropped out. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) hopes to contrast his focus on jobs, health care and other meat-and-potatoes issues with the bookish aridity of some of Hart's new ideas. Former Arizona Gov. Bruce E. Babbitt has already received a boost from his supporters' contention--echoed in several press accounts--that he has proposed a governing philosophy more integrated and far-reaching than Hart's. Several candidates are likely to argue that many of Hart's ideas, such as an oil import fee, are hardly new, and others, such as his interest in industrial policy, are passe.

For the Democrats, the risk in this strategy is that Hart, the best-known on a crowded platform, will stand out--or at least won't be discredited by 30-second jabs at his strategic investment initiative and foreign policy of "enlightened engagement." Those ideas can barely be described in a debate's clipped cadences, much less critiqued. And even if someone can outscore Hart on points, it's difficult to imagine winning an intellectual victory decisive enough to disqualify Hart in the mind of his supporters.

That's dangerous for the Democrats. Virtually no one but his die-hard adherents believes Hart has any realistic chance of being nominated despite his standing at the top of the polls. But those same polls indicate that Hart has a core of long-time supporters who have stuck with him to Bimini and back. That core may be about half the 20% who now say they prefer him.

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