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If New Ideas Resonate, Hart May Run Again

After 15 years mostly on the sidelines, the former senator may make a third bid for the White House. A speaking tour is set to begin Tuesday.

January 20, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The one-time candidate of the future wants to show he isn't a man of the past.

In the 1980s, then-Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, under the banner of "new ideas," led a drive to revamp the Democratic Party's agenda. He was an early favorite to win the party's 1988 presidential nomination, but saw his ambitions derailed by scandal.

Now, in an unexpected resurrection, he says he is "testing the waters" for a White House bid in 2004 and will deliver a series of policy speeches over the next six weeks to determine whether he can build sufficient support to run.

"The issue is, do you have something to say that is not being said?" Hart, now a Denver lawyer, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "I think particularly in the national defense and homeland security areas, I have a unique voice."

The 66-year-old Hart said he would decide whether to enter the Democratic race in March, after assessing the reaction to his speeches on national security, foreign policy, the economy and civic engagement.

Speeches a Barometer

The decision, he said, will turn on "public response to the speeches, what the other candidates are saying, and whether what I have to say is sufficiently different to justify speaking on my own."

In conversation, however, it is clear that Hart is strongly drawn toward the possibility of running. He has begun to explore how he might run a "volunteer, low-budget, small-dollar, mass democracy" campaign, and he said he believes he is better prepared to serve as president today than when he sought the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988.

"I've seen things that I didn't have the chance to when I was [in the Senate]," he says. "I still have the same energy level, and I have 15 years more experience."

In another measure of his interest, Hart's supporters on Sunday opened a Web site -- www.garyhartnews.com -- to provide information about the prospective campaign and begin building a network of enthusiasts. Hart also appeared Sunday on ABC's "This Week" to discuss a possible campaign.

In his heyday during the 1980s, Hart was what Bill Clinton became in the 1990s: the leader of the forces inside the Democratic Party seeking alternatives to conventional liberalism. Hart's "neo-liberal" agenda tried to move Democrats to the center on economics -- emphasizing growth over income redistribution -- and offered ambitious ideas on military reform while maintaining traditionally liberal positions on most social issues.

After having come close to swiping the '84 Democratic presidential nomination from front-runner Walter F. Mondale, Hart saw his bid for the '88 nomination sunk by revelations about his relationship with model Donna Rice. Hart was forced from the 1988 race under a hailstorm of ridicule and criticism, and, after a brief and unsuccessful reentry into the contest, he disappeared from public view for much of the next 15 years.

Hart began to reemerge through his work on the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, which he co-chaired with former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.). The commission warned, in a January 2001 report, that the United States was vulnerable to a massive terrorist attack -- a conclusion that seemed grimly prophetic after the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon eight months later.

While many Democratic professionals believe a Hart comeback bid for the nomination would face long odds, the idea is attracting surprising interest among some of his supporters from the 1980s, as well as enthusiastic younger activists.

"Initially, I think people were not sure what to make of it," said Will Kanteres, a leading New Hampshire Democratic activist who supported Hart in both his previous presidential races. "Now there's thinking [that] maybe we should listen to this guy."

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll of registered Democrats on the 2004 race earlier this month, Hart drew 6%. That was more than former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is actively running, but well behind the top-tier candidates: Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

"If he actually did do it, I think he would be a factor on the ideas level and the media attention level, but I don't think he'll resonate with today's voters," said a top advisor to another Democratic contender. "He has been out of the picture for so long, I don't think most people will feel a connection to him."

Hart first began considering the race last spring at the urging of two young Rhodes scholars whom he met while pursuing a doctorate in politics at Oxford University in 2000. The duo, Will Polkinghorn and Antwaun Smith, peppered Hart with memos and e-mails, contacted former supporters, floated the idea in the media and generally ignited enough of a fire to draw Hart toward the flame.

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