Gary Hart just can't stop running

CAMPAIGN '84 is history. But the Wunderkind of that election, Gary Hart, keeps racing ahead like a greyhound after a mechanical rabbit. The Democratic senator, as intense and driven as ever, is ``a man in a hurry,'' a close associate says. This month the senator jets to California, Florida, Maine, Missouri, and Colorado for speeches and fund-raisers. Next month it's Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, California again, New York, Georgia, and Massachusetts.

A blizzard of franked mail pours like confetti out of his senatorial suite in the Russell Office Building. Political reporters receive a torrent of press releases, speech texts, travel schedules, and packets of the latest news clippings that mention the senator.

What's it all about? What's the man from Colorado running for? Perhaps even Mr. Hart isn't sure at this moment.

Within the next three months, he will decide whether to seek reelection to the Senate from Colorado. Speculation is rampant that he will duck next year's race. If he does run, it could be a difficult and very costly contest for Hart in a state that often leans Republican.

Further, the National Conservative Political Action Committee has already made the senator a target for defeat, and two weeks ago it launched a $250,000 TV campaign against him in Colorado. A NCPAC-sponsored ``Truth Squad'' is stumping the state, deriding Hart's ``liberal'' voting record and accusing Hart of spending too much time on politics and too little time in the Senate, where he missed 63 percent of the roll-call votes last year, the worst record in the upper chamber. (The next worst was former S en. Walter D. Huddleston [D] of Kentucky, who missed a comparatively small 23 percent.)

The easy answer might be: Forget Colorado. Go for the White House. Yet haunting Hart supporters has been the experience of another presidential hopeful, Republican Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, the former Senate majority leader. The in-house joke in Washington circles has become: ``Whatever happened to Howard Baker?'' Could Hart afford to give up his Senate forum?

There is also his money problem. Hart has debts of $2 million to $3 million leftover from his 1984 campaign. Between $600,000 and $700,000 of that is bank debt, of which every cent must be repaid. The rest is for telephones, campaign T-shirts, consultant fees, buttons, paper, posters -- bills that will probably be ``settled'' for about $1.4 million, a Hart aide says.

Finally, there is a problem that is potentially even more serious. Even with his position in the Senate, Hart complains to reporters that people no longer seem to be listening to his ideas on issues like trade, Central America, or the arms race. They chalk it off to political posturing, rather than examining his ideas on merit.

Part of Hart's frustration is understandable. After he lost the nomination to Walter Mondale last year, he scarcely stopped campaigning. By his own count, he gave 120 speeches in 60 cities for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket. ``I worked harder for that ticket, personally,'' than anyone who ever lost the nomination, he says.

Suddenly, on Nov. 7, 1984, it was all over. Hart's heady, come-from-nowhere race was at an end. No more TV appearances. No more magazine covers. He was again just one of 100 senators, representing a middle-size state, sitting on committees like Armed Services, Budget, and Environment and Public Works. He was just one of 19 or 22 or 15 votes, and serving with the minority party.

From that vantage point, Hart has found it hard to steer debate on any major issue, whether it's on the future of his party, civil rights, trade, or arms policy.

Though some regard Hart as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, it's too early to be sure. There will almost certainly be six, seven, or eight major candidates in the running. Some, like Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, or Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, could catch fire the way Hart did in 1984. It will be no political picnic for Hart.

Yet Hart pushes on, driven by both financial need and political ambition.

And he is getting some help.

Last week, at a black-tie affair in the Georgetown home of Mr. and Mrs. W. Averell Harriman, nearly 300 supporters paid a minimum of $500 apiece to rub shoulders with Hart and some of those who have come to his aid, including Mr. Mondale and actor Jack Nicholson.

Hart grinned, shook hands, and posed for countless photos with contibutors till almost midnight. The night's take: between $200,000 and $300,000.

Yet political analyst Kevin Phillips suggests that Hart's cash-flow problems could be significant. With the 1986 elections little more than 12 months away, he needs to get rid of his enormous debt and then raise from $1 million to $3 million to run a strong race in Colorado. Almost immediately he would need more cash for a presidential contest.

Adding to his dilemma is a new NCPAC poll by Goldhaber Associates of New York that found 59 percent of Colorado's voters don't want him to run for the Senate again if he's going to spend 1987 and '88 seeking the presidency. Hart will say only that he has ``not yet'' decided to run again in 1988 and that he will make a decision about Colorado by December.

Meanwhile, he plunges himself into issue papers and thematic speeches on topics like patriotism (which he feels the Democratic Party should embrace as its watchword), military reform, economic renewal, minority opportunities, and, in November, foreign policy.

As he did in 1984, Hart still tries to push, nudge, and chide his party toward what he sees as modern, post-Roosevelt positions in critical areas.

The trade issue, he told reporters at a breakfast meeting here last week, has become a metaphor of what's going on in the Democratic Party.

Hart is clearly upset with the trend toward protectionist policies in his party.

``We now have a choice of either clinging to the past, and protecting the past in the literal sense of the word by becoming for the first time in our history the protectionist party'' or moving to new policies that cover new international challenges, he argues.

``The very act of protecting says, `We have nothing new to offer; we're going to try to hold on to what we have or had, or thought we had, vs. the risk of launching yourself into the future.' ''

There are great political risks in a merely protectionist strategy, he says.

``If the protectionist policies advocated by some in our party are followed, we will see some short-term political gains. . . . But in the long term, I think it is a political disaster for us, because it is wrong. It is not a good policy. And ultimately, over the long term, good policy is good politics. Sooner or later, if you are just cashing in on short-term chips, people are going to find that out.''

What makes good policy? What should the Democratic message be?

``I think it's somewhere around the notion of patriotism. . . . Redefining what this country's all about. . . . Getting back to a notion, perhaps an idealistic notion, that we owe something to the country.''

And if that sounds a little like John F. Kennedy, Hart would no doubt be pleased.

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