GARY HART has won a surprise victory in the initial stages of his comeback effort, my soundings among the voters suggest. He has effectively used a widespread, latent public antagonism against the press to his advantage. He still admits that he invited media scrutiny but complains he didn't ask the reporters to hound him in his private life. He continues to insist it was that nasty press that really caused his woes. And taking on the press - and not his political adversaries - is paying off, handsomely.
A typical voter response was the observation of one man who stuck up for Mr. Hart by criticizing the press for picking on the candidate and then added: ``Just about everyone has something they did in private life that wouldn't look good if it got in the papers.''
Her husband told me he differed on this view. He thought Hart had been properly scalded by the press disclosures.
But again, the surprising development was the substantial backing Hart was getting in the early aftermath of a reentry into the race, where his presence, many thought, would be short lived. Indeed, some were writing that he would soon be laughed out of the campaign by the Hart jokes that would sweep the country.
Well, a lot of jokes are still being told at Hart's expense, but they seem to be losing some of their impact.
Most disturbing was the evidence of considerable support from people who profess to see nothing wrong in his behavior. Reflective of this was a letter published in the Orlando, Fla., Sentinel from a male reader whose sentiments were headlined ``Go Gary, go.''
``Gary Hart will win the presidency,'' this writer asserted. ``What are his critics complaining about? Many who are accusing Hart of wrongdoing are the same people who would do the same thing if given the chance. Is it a crime to go out with a beautiful woman who is willing? I don't think so. Go, Gary, go.''
This kind of reaction comes from people who represent those who might be classified as ``the womanizer vote.'' It may not be a large category (I certainly hope it isn't), but it's raising its head. And it's been sufficiently vocal to at least help Hart from sinking out of sight in his swim upstream against what appeared to be insurmountable opposition.
Not that I have come away from conversations with voters with the impression that a massive pro-Hart tide is on the rise. But at least I can now understand why the former Colorado senator is leading all Democrats in national polls measuring the presidential candidates - and why he seems to be the leader among Iowa caucus voters, where victory could rebuild Hart's prospects.
Hart just might gain the Democratic nomination. But his chances of making it to the presidency remain dim. Most Americans would probably agree with the woman whose letter was printed the other day in the New York Times: ``We do not need to praise womanizers. The very term suggests unfair power relationships. The language offers no analogous term such as `manizer.' And in a presumably egalitarian society, women know that there is no place for womanizing because it destroys families.''
But this column is about the Hart pickup in the face of predicted early disaster. No doubt about it, he has averted that forecast and is moving upward politically. Hart's demeanor is the newest thing about his campaign. He's recovered his bounce, his geniality. He's confident again. All this helps his political recovery.
Hart hopes he will be able to turn the page and that voters will soon focus entirely on his positions on issues. But he still faces troubling questions.
On a recent TV interview show Hart said of the incident that got him into trouble: ``It was a bad mistake.''
``The American people don't have a right to know everything about our leaders' lives,'' he said. Was he saying that he had made a mistake but one not important enough for the voters to know about, and that the press were the real troublemakers?
At this point making the press out as the villains is helping Hart to gain a foothold for recovery.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.