Denver — Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, known for his Robert Redford-style good looks and neoliberal leanings, is now the second Democratic contender to officially announce his candidacy for the 1984 presidential nomination.
On the steps of Colorado's Capitol Feb. 17, Senator Hart formally kicked off what may prove to be one of the more unusual dark horse presidential campaigns of the next two years.
In 1982, while front-runner Walter Mondale was busy building a political organization and raising large amounts of money for his campaign war chest, the former campaign director for George McGovern and Democratic ''Young Turk'' was pursuing an unorthodox strategy that has intrigued many political observers but left them skeptical.
Hart has argued that the 1984 campaign will be a test of ideas rather than of political organization. Some observers see this as a valiant attempt to turn his major liabilities into strengths. But for the last two years the two-term senator has been developing detailed positions on a number of key issues, including defense, taxes, energy, and economic policy. In the latter area, he is one of a group of US lawmakers labeled ''Atari'' Democrats, who emphasize high technology as the vehicle for America's economic resurgence.
Through voluminous position papers, speeches to groups like the Los Angeles World Affairs Council presented in a dry, almost academic style, and activities such as the organization of a recent ''summit meeting'' of promising young politicians from several Western countries, Hart has been trying to stake out the high ground as a liberal idea man. The thrust of his thinking, Hart explains , ''is to seek nonbureaucratic and nonprogrammatic ways to achieve the ends which liberalism has had the government do in the past 50 years.''
Besides being a purveyor of new political ideas, Hart's game plan appears designed to package him as a fresh political face. Until now he has kept a relatively low news-media profile. Some of his potential supporters have been worried about his apparent fence sitting: his lack of organization building and fund raising, coupled with his refusal to declare his intentions before now.
But Hart, who has been down the presidential trail before, maintains that a winning organization can be formed in a year. Clearly the senator, who is a very cautious politician and a methodical planner, is following a carefully outlined political regimen.
Still, Hart's biggest drawback at the moment is lack of name recognition. Political commentators point out that he doesn't have much time left for a meteoric rise like that staged by John F. Kennedy and which is his major hope for securing the nomination. Name recognition is not a problem with former Vice-President Mondale or Sen. John Glenn of Ohio. The withdrawal of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts from the race was seen as more beneficial to Senator Glenn than to Hart.
Also, the Colorado senator's association with George McGovern has left him with a lingering identification with the party's left wing. This is ironic, because his positions seem tailored to appeal to moderate Democrats of the South , West, and border states who represent a distinct, ideological camp within the party. This group generally advocates civil rights, efficient and honest government, environmental protection, and a measured defense policy. Since President Carter's defeat in 1980, they have been left without an obvious leader of presidential caliber.
One key Democratic constituency - labor - is definitely leery of Hart because of his fiscal conservatism. A number of the economic positions he espouses are not viewed favorably from the halls of labor. The AFL-CIO gives him a cumulative 77 percent prolabor voting record, which one labor leader dubs a ''C rating.''
Another possible problem for Hart is the beginnings of a backlash against the neoliberal search for new principles within the Democratic Party. An example of this is the formation of a new bloc of ''human needs'' Democrats in the House who argue that the party should rededicate itself to old principles, not look for new ones, and who object that the neoliberals are more interested in ideas than people.
Despite liabilities of this sort, however, the Colorado politician has stirred party interest by his ability to win in the conservative Rocky Mountain region. In Colorado, the senator has done well in Republican areas and among white-collar professionals, says his pollster, Patrick Caddell, who adds that Hart appeals strongly to members of the post-World War II baby-boom generation.
As a result, even if he doesn't capture the presidential nomination, Hart could be well positioned for a ticket-balancing slot as the Democratic nominee's running mate.