What attracts voters to Gary Hart? Despite his weakened position following caucuses here in Arkansas and four other states on Saturday, he clearly has a drawing power that remains a force to be reckoned with. Interviews with some in the young-to-old, blue-jeans-to-business-suit, mostly white crowd that came to listen to him at a town meeting here offer some clues to his voter appeal.
The rally, in a large ballroom of the Camelot Hotel, came just before the strong victory by Walter F. Mondale in this state.
''I don't know. I really don't know,'' said one young woman, when asked why she had come to the Hart rally. ''He appeals to me more than anybody in about 10 years.''
Mr. Mondale is ''a little too far left,'' said a man sitting nearby. (His view clearly didn't reflect that of the 43.9 percent of voters who chose Mondale , compared to 30.4 percent for Senator Hart, 19.9 percent for Jesse Jackson, and 5.8 percent uncommitted.)
''(Hart) is telling us new things we need to know,'' Mary Ivey said. Asked what new things, she looked down at a Hart brochure she had picked up on the way in and said: ''I really don't know.'' She began backing him ''when he began winning in the East,'' she said. A few others interviewed, however, said they had been Hart supporters before New Hampshire and several even before Iowa.
Joe Ivey, a retired Air Force officer and retired teacher, was more specific. ''We were for (John) Glenn at first,'' he said. ''And we have a son, 35 - we're interested in young people.'' He likes Hart's youthfulness. He also likes the resemblance he sees in Hart to both John and Robert Kennedy.
J. Virgil Highfield, Arkansas director for the American Association of Retired Persons, called Hart ''the best thinker'' among the candidates.
Hart is also attracting some young, dedicated volunteers - newcomers to politics. Bruce Thomasson, assistant director of a Methodist social-service agency here, volunteered after the Colorado senator's win in New Hampshire. So far he has knocked on some 60 doors distributing Hart literature and found in most cases, ''people were hungry for information on Hart.''
College student Tom Finn from Iowa brought 10 other college students to Arkansas to help in Hart's last-minute race for support here. ''I met him. He appealed to me as a guy who wanted to introduce people to politics who hadn't been introduced. He excites people - he makes them want to be involved,'' he says.
By now the ballroom is packed, with many standing. Hart arrives, shaking hands on his way to the front. He is greeted with a standing ovation. He speaks without notes, rapidly, touching with varying degrees of detail such issues as the homeless (Mondale has criticized him for lack of sensitivity to the poor); the need for tighter control over defense contract spending; his opposition to the MX missile and the B-1 bomber; pay raises for military personnel; and medicare.
In one 60-second portion, he used the words ''Kennedy . . . new leadership . . . fresh start. . . . ''
He is often interrupted by applause. There are few shouts and whistles, but there is strong enthusiasm. And people are paying attention.
Did Hart win some of the undecided at the rally?
Ellen Glancy went in undecided came out that way. She said she still wanted to find out more about his nuclear-arms and education policies. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D), who introduced Hart here, called him a ''smart'' man, but declined to endorse any candidate.