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Democratic Scramble

January 19, 1988

Gary Hart is not Lazarus or the phoenix. Butting back into the Democratic presidential campaign as a semi-penitent, Hart was just one of the boys who debated in Des Moines the other evening. In fact, Hart managed to make his six opponents look good. He has not swept Democrats off their feet with his so-called new ideas. Bruce Babbitt, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, Albert Gore Jr., Jesse Jackson and Paul Simon have ideas of their own--many that sound more practical and heartfelt than those of the former Colorado senator.

The other six have appeared together so many times that the Des Moines debate had the aura of a Boy Scout troop meeting at which Hart was an interloper. It was not necessarily out of politeness that the six refrained from questioning Hart about morality. Why call attention to a competitor?

That not one of the six has caught fire and run away from the pack is disturbing to many Democrats who despair about chances of returning to the White House a year from Wednesday. Speculation about efforts to lure a Mario Cuomo or a Bill Bradley into the race continues. The existence of a bunched pack without an obvious leader helped attract Hart back into the contest, on the assumption perhaps that his personal charisma and campaign experience would push him to the front overnight. If so, that was a miscalculation. And the wishing for a Cuomo or a Bradley becomes more wishful thinking as time goes on.

In fact, as of Feb. 9 there will be a clear Democratic front-runner, or perhaps two, with one or two others whose campaigns will have earned real legitimacy. The sorting-out process will begin that day, with real people casting real votes.

Hart did not help himself with his contorted effort to separate public and private morality. "We have never expected perfection from our leaders," he claimed. Perhaps not, but the voting public at least expects its leaders to have the capacity to distinguish good judgment from bad. The next President will have little control over the list of major problems that will confront him. Few crises can be forecast, and times of crisis are when Americans most need to have trust and confidence in a President's judgment. In daring the media to follow him, and then to allow himself to get caught in his own dare, Hart exhibited a serious flaw in judgment. It is impossible to separate public and private morality in such a case.

Some other points from the Des Moines debate are worth noting. One was Jackson's eloquent soliloquy on why it should not be impossible for a black person to be elected President of the United States. This country has always tested its ability to accept change in racial relations and has always been the better for it, he argued. Electing a black to the White House should be no different. Even if Jackson never becomes President, his 1988 campaign will have made that goal considerably easier for someone.

Commendations also to former Arizona Gov. Babbitt and Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis for their crisp rebuttal to Republican Gov. James Thompson of Illinois on why they refused President Reagan's request to send their states' national guard troops to train in Honduras. If the President was so anxious to send them to Honduras, all he had to do was exercise his presidential authority to nationalize the units.

Maybe Gary Hart has done the Democrats a favor after all, giving them a chance to judge the other six against him on the same debate platform. The other six looked pretty good.

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