Denver — Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado is shaping up as the Democrat's ''Western card'' for 1984.
Although not yet actively campaigning for the presidency, Senator Hart, who has been on the list of potential Democratic candidates for some time, has moved from denying his aspirations to acknowledging that he is strongly considering the possibility.
The reddish-haired, freckled Kansas farm boy with Ivy League credentials has been at the forefront of efforts to redefine liberal philosophy to make it relevant to the 1980s. This involves coming up with ways to carry out the liberal commitment to help the needy that go beyond the traditional liberal reliance on large federal programs.
As a possible presidential candidate, Hart starts with a major advantage. ''It's simply not possible for the Democrats to win in '84 without picking up the Western vote. To do that, they will need a solid Westerner on the ticket. And Gary Hart has been one of the prime movers in Washington on behalf of Western interests,'' says David Henderson, a Washington D.C. lawyer who helped put together a conference on Western issues held here last weekend by the Center for National Policy, a liberal political think tank.
Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale are generally considered the current Democratic front-runners. Polls show Senator Kennedy as the preferred candidate of just over 30 percent of Democratic voters, with Mr. Mondale just under 30 percent. Both have the name recognition, national political organizations, and campaign war chests that Hart lacks.
What Hart, the campaign manager for liberal George McGovern in 1972, hopes to counter with are some new political ideas. He has moved much more into the political mainstream since his election to the Senate in 1974. Recently, he has been preparing and freely distributing weighty issue papers on subjects like economic policy and defense.
For example, his paper on the economy begins by noting that ''over the last 30 years the US economy has been undergoing a transformation as significant as the industrial revolution of the 19th century.'' This transformation, he says, includes a shift from manufacturing and heavy industry to high technology, information, and service industries. At the same time, the economy increasingly has become part of an international economy. These changes have made traditional methods of controlling the economy obsolete, he argues. ''The challenge of the 1980s is to restore economic growth by capitalizing on these two fundamental economic shifts, rather than resisting them,'' he concludes.
To meet this challenge, Hart proposes a long list of new policies:
* Eliminate taxes on savings and investments.
* Permit companies to issue a tax-free stock to finance construction of new plants and purchase of new equipment.
* Provide better tax breaks for small businesses.
* Increase federal expenditures for research and development and hike R&D tax credits for private enterprise.
* Give preferential treatment to companies with employee ownership.
* Overhaul and expand federal job-training and placement services.
* Develop training programs for the young and disadvantaged.
* Change federal laws so US trading companies can be formed to better compete in the international market.
* Increase pressure on US trading partners to reduce nontariff trade barriers.
* Devise an energy policy that would include an oil import fee and increased emphasis on conservation and renewable energy sources.
In the area of national defense, the Colorado senator already has a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable members of Congress. He likes to draw an analogy between US defense today and the French Army just before World War II. Sitting behind their massive and expensive Maginot line, Hart says, the French Army was bogged down in bureaucracy and divided by petty jealousies. The same thing is true about the US defense establishment today, he argues. And just as in France during the 1920s, he adds, the defense debate today revolves incorrectly around how much money to spend rather than on how to spend it effectively.
Currently, the US armed forces have the highest turnover rate in the world. To combat this, Hart backs efforts to form a British-style system where people stay in the same regiment for their entire career, thus encouraging loyalty to their unit.
There are some political dangers to such a detailed approach. For example, Hart's sophisticated proposals for preventing nuclear war were eclipsed by the much simpler and more dramatic call by Senator Kennedy and Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon for a nuclear weapons freeze. Also, political pollster Peter Hart says his surveys show the public is not interested in radical new solutions. ''This is a period of consolidation,'' the pollster says. ''People are catching their breath, going back to basics.'' If true, this may work against a politician who is proposing reforms.