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Faces Major Test in Debate Friday : Hart Draws Attention --Skepticism Is Noted

January 14, 1988|KEITH LOVE | Times Political Writer

DENVER — As he prepares for a key television debate Friday, Gary Hart is in an extraordinary position.

A personal mistake made him a celebrity, and now he is attempting to direct the resultant attention toward the drier stuff of presidential campaigns--proposals for making foreign policy and for investing in education and technology--in an effort to prove that he is a credible candidate.

It is a low-budget effort that is producing a string of surprising tableaux.

At campaign stops in Iowa last week, crowds of 100 to 400 persons greeted Hart and his wife, Lee. As television news crews surrounded them, a crush of people pressed close to shake their hands and get autographs. Then they fell silent as Hart talked about what he would do as President.

"That's what I came to hear, he's telling the truth," said O.J. Eich of Iowa Falls after Hart said the government would have to impose some new taxes and fees if it was going to improve education and health care.

Some Pursue Celebrity

It was much the same in New Hampshire, where some people were merely celebrity watchers, others were supporters, but all listened.

"He has gotten my attention, which is more than I can say for the other candidates," said Debbie Allport, a travel agent in Manchester, N. H. "So I will listen to him, although I can't say now whether I would support him."

The response surprises some political professionals, who do not think a politician can recover from the kind of negative publicity Hart got when he was seen with Miami model Donna Rice, quit the race, and later confessed to adultery.

Moreover, Hart--who is looking more relaxed and focused than he has in years--is doing what some would say is audacious: striking a moral tone and challenging voters and young people to become good citizens.

Calls Administration 'Immoral'

In Fort Dodge, Iowa, Hart said it was "immoral for the Reagan Administration to spend millions on weapons while homeless people freeze."

Talking to high school students in Newmarket, N. H, Hart blasted the current system of choosing a President because of its dependence on large amounts of money and on TV ads and high-priced advisers--all of which he himself once used but is shunning now.

"There is a morality question here," Hart said. "Should we spend $20 million to pick a nominee while people are homeless and hungry? But politicians won't change the system. The American people are going to have to insist on it."

And at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Hart challenged 500 students "to give something to your country; you owe it."

He said the same thing at Harvard University on Sunday when so many students turned out to hear him--more than 1,000--that the auditorium overflow had to watch his speech on closed-circuit TV.

Finds Sympathetic Audience

The comments of those who turn out to see Hart indicate that he is finding his most sympathetic audience among lower-income persons over the age of 40, many of whom say they like the anti-Establishment tone of his campaign and believe the press should not have spied on his house last May when he was with Rice.

Hart is viewed less favorably by better-educated, more prosperous persons who do not appear to share his anger at "the system," based on random interviews.

And though the Harts--both attractive, youthful people in their early 50s--clearly excite young people, this group also contains skeptics.

"He seems proud that his campaign is not organized, and that seems to say disorganization is good. But I have a problem with that coming from someone who wants to run the country," said Jeff Hobson, a Harvard freshman from Laguna Beach.

Another Harvard freshman, Jessica Boklan, said that while she was glad Hart had apologized for the Rice incident, she thought it would haunt him forever.

No Family Pictures

When Hart told the Harvard students that his campaign brochure was a 92-page statement of ideas "and not a something filled with pictures of my family and our dog MacArthur," nervous laughter swept the audience.

"It had a double meaning," Boklan said. "You know, why would you expect the guy who was seen with Donna Rice to show off his family pictures."

For these skeptics--and for Hart himself--a major test will be Friday's Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa. For the first time since he returned to the fray Dec. 15, Hart will appear with the six other major Democratic candidates.

Has Debate Advantages

In addition to his celebrity status, Hart goes into the Iowa debate with the advantage of more presidential campaign experience than any of his competitors, as well as a forceful speaking style that ranks him with the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the most articulate Democratic candidate.

The other night, for example, Hart did something only Jackson could have matched. He sat in a Boston pub watching a football game and drinking a glass of stout with supporters, then drove to Harvard and gave a major speech without notes and took tough questions from the students for 45 minutes.

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