Hart tests the waters

April 18, 2003|By Jules Witcover

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- Nineteen years ago, then-Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado took New Hampshire by storm, upsetting Vice President Walter F. Mondale in the state's first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential primary, only to run out of money and gas later.

He was back this week pondering another try, hoping for a fresh start after his subsequent rerun in 1988 was derailed by extramarital dalliances. In appearances at St. Anselm College and New England College, however, the subject never came up.

In the intervening time, Mr. Hart, now in his mid-60s, has made a name for himself as a Russian expert, a writer, a scholar and most recently a man who warned America of terrorism at home well before it occurred in 2001.

Under cover of a book tour, Mr. Hart has been crisscrossing the country taking the voters' pulse about his prospects in the same way he did in advance of running in 1984.

Then, he recalls, Mr. Mondale was considered a shoo-in for the nomination, but a lot of Democrats indicated they were looking for an alternative who offered new ideas.

This time around, he says, he's hearing much of the same. His view of the future, he reports, is resonating especially with young voters who say they'd like to see a leader of both experience and vision, meaning himself.

Also, he says, "across the party at large there's a real sense that there's no dominant figure. It is a jump ball in terms of who's going to end up as the nominee. And people even who are not ready to commit say, `Look, you ought to do it. If nothing else, you'll raise the level of the dialogue. You're still ideas-oriented, and that's what we need. You'll force the others to do better.'"

However, Mr. Hart says, "I know only one kind of politics, and that's to run to win. I cannot in good conscience spend the next year of my life and ask a lot of people to make contributions of their time and money just so I can join a debating society. If I get into the race, it will be to win the nomination and win the White House."

It's a measure of Mr. Hart's self-confidence in his ideas, if not his electability, that he can accept the notion that his presence would elevate the campaign dialogue.

For all of President Bush's high ratings in the wake of the Iraq war, Mr. Hart says, "I think he is beatable. I don't necessarily agree with those who say it's a rerun of 1991 and 1992, where automatically and easily attention is going to shift to the economy and his numbers will go back down" (as happened to the senior Mr. Bush in his failed re-election bid).

Mr. Hart says he believes the Bush strategists "are going to manage to keep beating the drums in the Middle East and possibly in Asia, keep voters focused on perceived or alleged threats to our security, and keep their minds off the loss of their pensions and jobs. ... How long they can keep that going, I don't know."

The notion of some Democrats that the key to victory in 2004 is to end-run the war and conduct the campaign debate on only the state of the economy, Mr. Hart says, "is doomed to fail."

Three issues in any national campaign -- the economy, foreign policy and defense -- are interrelated, he says, especially in the era of globalization, "so you can't just run on the economy. ... If you're going to nominate somebody for president, you'd better nominate somebody who's qualified in all three of those areas."

As one who was an innovator in defense and intelligence reform in Congress and more recently in homeland security, Mr. Hart admits to a certain frustration over his last 15 years out of government and says "a legitimate hurdle" for him is whether he is perceived as "a figure of the past."

But, he says, "I'm a different candidate than I was 15 or 20 years ago." In sharp contrast to Mr. Bush, he says, "I've traveled to 65 or 70 countries; I've been to Russia over 100 times; I've kept in touch with world leaders. ... I am broader and deeper on all three of those sets of issues I've mentioned than anybody in this race."

Mr. Hart says he has no sense of urgency in deciding whether to run again and won't until late spring or summer. But from all this, he seems already to have sold himself on another presidential bid.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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