WASHINGTON - The snickering has started already over the decision of former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado to join the national dialogue by exploring the possibility of another Democratic presidential nomination bid.
Although the too-conspicuous womanizing that drove him from elective politics occurred in 1987, that blemish is an obvious initial detriment to Mr. Hart's being taken seriously should he enter the race, as now seems likely, several weeks from now.
This is so even in an electorate that polls showed only four years ago was willing to abide a sitting president who not only womanized but lied about it before a grand jury. So the first task for Mr. Hart is to demonstrate quickly that he can make a constructive contribution to that dialogue as a candidate.
Mr. Hart, who was the surprise of the 1984 Democratic race in challenging Walter Mondale and was the front-runner for his party's 1988 nomination before his candidacy crashed, is now engaged in that exercise.
In a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York the other day, Mr. Hart offered one of the more thoughtful examinations yet of the Bush administration's new doctrine of pre-emptive war, apparently on the verge of its implementation against Iraq.
Noting wryly that it "has the virtue of simplicity," Mr. Hart warned of "long-term foreign policy consequences" if core conditions that breed terrorism, including cultural differences and resentments in the region, are not addressed after any military action.
Mr. Hart, along with former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, led a task force that warned of a major terrorist strike nine months before the Sept. 11 assaults and another warning of U.S. unpreparedness for retaliatory attacks after an Iraq invasion.
"It is imprudent in the extreme," he said, "to attack a nation in a region seething with hostile suicidal forces when we are vulnerable to their retaliation." Missile defense, he observed, is hardly the answer.
In the next few weeks, Mr. Hart will be making speeches around the country on other issues that will form the heart of the debate among a large and growing field of Democratic candidates. He well understands that the best forum to ensure that his ideas will be heard is a presidential candidacy, and for now he rationalizes an entry into the race in those terms.
But Mr. Hart is a man who has run for president twice and inevitably engages in what-might-have-beens. In conversation, he recalls how, after upsetting Mr. Mondale in New Hampshire in 1984, he beat him in seven of nine Super Tuesday primaries. But the TV networks cast it as a Mondale comeback, a psychological and public relations setback for Mr. Hart.
That wasn't the only reason why Mr. Hart lost the nomination. Lack of money and strategic decisions also hurt. But he cannot be dismissed as one who, especially after his subsequent embarrassments in 1987, is bent only on self-rehabilitation. At a minimum, his presence in debate with the others, if he can weather the inevitable early snickers, can oblige the other candidates to grapple more thoughtfully with the course his party should be taking.
In 1984, George McGovern, who had won his party's nomination in 1972 but had been soundly thrashed by President Richard Nixon, served that function by entering the Democratic competition and reminding the other contenders of their party's roots. He got nowhere as a candidate but won much admiration within the ranks for the elevating nature of his discourse.
A Hart candidacy may well amount to no more than that, but if so it would be no small contribution. As for anything more, it depends on the former senator himself and voters' willingness to extend to him the same pass it gave to Bill Clinton in the face of more egregious personal behavior.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.