How to take Hart

SO Gary Hart is back. Only months after disclosure of his dalliance with Donna Rice made further campaigning impossible, Mr. Hart has officially entered the Feb. 16 New Hampshire primary.

Hart has a right to test his current market value against the six Democrats in the race. New Hampshire was where his 1984 presidential bubble lifted off. Though hardly taken seriously, a slim Hart-for-president brigade has been working on his behalf in New Hampshire this fall.

Who knows what fantasies lurk in the minds of presidential aspirants? The very term ``aspirant'' suggests vagueness of intent. On its face, Hart's return is no more explicable than the circumstances of his exit. He would appear to have dashed his credibility with the Rice episode. He might think his profession is that of presidential candidate, and he wants to finish out his interrupted '88 season.

In effect, the two February nomination events - the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary - make up a presidential mini-season. Republican Pete duPont was waxing enthusiastic with us the other day, during an editorial board session, about how great it was for him to be able to run a two-state campaign for just 6 million bucks. Forget Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, California, the swing states that usually determine a presidential outcome. If he wasn't in the running after the gate opens, he was finished anyway. Polls will quickly register whether the idea of a return is nutty or smart. So in this sense, Hart has little to lose.

His entry will dominate the Democratic challenger discussion for a period, a discussion that tends to flag. It's a new variable, to go along with speculation over whether some late-hour knight - Mario Cuomo? Sam Nunn? - might ride onto the tournament grounds to win the party's favor.

But besides himself, who wants Gary Hart back in the race? Do the Democrats need him? Will he be to the others what on the GOP side Al Haig has become to George Bush - a voice from the past to challenge the front-runners' claim to the tournament title?

Maybe in this media age a stint in the political wilderness is gotten through quicker than in times past - remember how long it took for Richard Nixon to return after his early defeats, how long Ted Kennedy is taking before a return presidential bout?

Whatever. Gary Hart is back. And it won't take long to find out whether his return means much at all.

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