Campaign gaffes tangle Hart's stride
Political misjudgments and mistakes are beginning to nip at Gary Hart's heels as he runs for the White House. The red-hot Hart campaign has set a blistering pace since mid-February. In recent days, however, Mr. Hart's victories have been fewer and his campaign's performance more ragged. He won very little in the state caucuses on ''Super Saturday,'' March 17. He watched Walter Mondale sweep the Puerto Rico primary on Sunday.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, news stories and television reports on the Hart campaign have become steadily tougher. And there have been signs that Mr. Mondale's attacks on Hart are having some effect.
Hart has fought back. But for the first time, the young senator has found himself on the defensive. In recent days, he has committed a series of gaffes that could be damaging.
Such mistakes may seem unimportant if Hart wins a smashing victory today in Illinois. But Hart's vulnerabilities are being carefully watched by Republicans, and could be paraded back before the voters in the fall.
Reporters following the Hart campaign saw the first signs of trouble shortly after Hart's stunning victory in New Hampshire. News stories began probing into Hart's background. Hart's opponents - especially Mondale and John Glenn - took aim at Hart's record.
The impact was swift. As often is the case in politics, Hart was probably hurt less by what was discovered, than by the way he handled each revelation.
One of the most telling TV broadcasts came right after the presidential debate a week ago in Atlanta. In that debate, two specific points were raised about Hart's record. One point related to Cuba, the other to the proposed equal rights amendment (ERA).
In the debate, Mondale charged that Hart had once said he didn't know whether Cuba was a totalitarian state. Hart denied Mondale's assertion. After the debate , Hart told reporters:
''In the incident involved, I refused to say whether it was either totalitarian or authoritarian, and it wasn't because I didn't know.''
But Bruce Morton, a correspondent for CBS News, checked the record and found the following exchange in 1982 between Hart and the editors of the Washington Post:
Hart: ''Cuba is not totalitarian and it's not democratic.''
Post: ''If Cuba is not a totalitarian government, what is it?''
Hart: ''I don't know.''
Senator Glenn had charged in the debate that Hart would use the power of the federal government to withhold projects from those who were undecided about support for the ERA.
Hart interjected: ''No, I didn't.''
But CBS noted that the record of Hart talking before the National Women's Political Caucus shows Hart saying:
''I'm talking about specific federal projects to be used to bring around people who are on the fence . . . where support is at least lukewarm, and I intend to do that.''
Hart might have been hurt in the conservative South by such stands on Cuba and the ERA; but his failure to acknowledge his positions on the issues made things even worse.
That shaky performance has been followed by others.
The subject of Hart's age, for example, seems so trite that some people consider it too silly to discuss. But Hart has kept the issue bubbling.