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Advice for Gary Hart

By Godfrey Sperling Jr. / January 21, 1986



THE does not start out this time as ``Gary Who?'' But even in his second time around Gary Hart's candidacy reminds us of Jimmy Carter when he came out of nowhere to win the presidency. Hart is getting a lot of advice these days. But he shouldn't forget to take a hard look at how the Georgian did it. Carter positioned himself as anti-Washington-establishment and pro-American-people right from the start. He let it be known that he was going to bring about a more effective federal government by an infusion of new people and fresh ideas. But he didn't bother to go into details on how his new team would get the job done.

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Hart is being told that he must present carefully detailed proposals on the major issues of the day. And he already is moving in that direction.

My advice is to offer the voters some clear-cut alternatives to both the current Reagan themes and the old-time Democratic religion. But too much specificity (to use a word that is easier to write than pronounce) will cause you to make as many new opponents as new supporters -- maybe more. And, worst of all, it will commit you firmly to specifics that you may want to revise later. And the press will call every revision a compromise with principles.

I know you will remember well what happened to presidential candidate George McGovern when his tax-revision plan ran into an unexpected buzz saw. Some of his specifics were stirring up anger in unanticipated quarters, among blue-collar workers.

You will recall -- since you were at McGovern's side -- that when George tried to revise his plan a bit he got thumped by observers who said this was an indication of the candidate's indecisiveness.

No, this doesn't mean that you should run a campaign based on a lot of broad promises and beguiling rhetoric. The public doesn't want to be bedazzled. Indeed, there is somewhat of a reaction out there against this very popular President Reagan among people who think he has bedazzled them too much -- and they might well like something a little different next time.

But you can learn a lot from Reagan, who sensed what the majority of voters were crying out for -- and hit these themes hard, again and again. Also, have you noticed that Ronald Reagan's winning theme was not too far removed from what Jimmy Carter had already discovered -- and used effectively in 1976? It was anti-Washington-establishment at base -- coupled with the implication that the ``people out there'' could get the job done better.

This approach did much to win Carter the presidency. And Carter then lost to a man who could play the tune better than he.

You obviously are a part of the Washington establishment. Yet, you really aren't. You've never truly been accepted among your peers in the Senate. Indeed, both Washington press and politicians view you as a loner.

This hurt you some in the 1984 campaign, when colleagues and other Democratic leaders didn't rally to your side when you needed it. But this lonesome cowboy image can help you, too. You already have worked it to your advantage when you took on the special interests, including top labor leaders, in 1984 -- and thereby won a lot of public support for this spunky show of independence.

Don't retreat too much from this show of political courage -- even if you think you must soften your position a bit to gain the nomination. Such a pulling back would gain you little among the leaders of these groups -- and will lose you a lot of respect among the voters at large. Don't make moves that will win you the nomination and lose you the election.

Jimmy Carter, if you remember, was positioned much like yourself: He was a former governor and you, of course, are soon to be a former senator. He was sometimes described as having nothing more than a shoeshine and a wonderful smile. His rise from this obscurity was something to behold. Someday political observers will once again marvel over how he did it.

Carter, above everything else, came through as someone who was separate from the old politics. Reagan has been able to do this too. Carter also was accepted by the voters as being a very decent as well as very likable man. Reagan obviously was viewed as possessing those same qualities. And your rapid rise was based on a similar widespread perception that you were a man of integrity and an independent spirit.

So build on all that, senator. You can stress your independence as you come up with your new ideas and approaches. But don't feel you have to spell it all out before you reach your goal. Too much specificity (that word again) has its risks during the campaign. And it could, if you become president, hamstring you to programs that reflected your basic thinking but which had to deal with the hard realities of getting Congress to pass them.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.