If a national referendum had been held among Democrats a few days after Gary Hart's reentry into the presidential race last month, he would have been the clear winner. So says Bonnie Campell, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. Such is not the case now - at least, not in Iowa. Recent polls show Hart's early lead quickly fading.
``His early poll figures reflected the celebrity factor,'' Ms. Campell says. ``Hart was never really supported by likely caucus goers. They just aren't willing to take the risk. Why choose a candidate who has problems already when there are other candidates who don't?''
In a poll taken last week by the Des Moines Register among ``definite caucus goers,'' Hart came in last with just 10 percent. He trailed Gov. Michael Dukakis (21 percent), Rep. Richard Gephardt (17), Sen. Paul Simon (16), former Gov. Bruce Babbitt (14), and the Rev. Jesse Jackson (12). A recent NBC poll of likely Iowa caucus goers puts Hart fourth.
These numbers are a marked decline from Hart's performance in late December and early January. A CBS/New York Times poll then placed Hart first, with 27 percent of the likely caucus voters in Iowa, 7 points ahead of his nearest rival, Senator Simon.
``The numbers here were artificially high to begin with,'' says Phil Roeder, communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party. ``The excitement of the moment led a lot of people in most polls to say, `Sure, I'm for Gary Hart.' And now that the dust has settled and people have had more of a chance to think about ... who they are going to support and whether they are even going to go out to the caucuses, that has taken some away from Hart.''
Senator Hart's campaign manager, Susan Casey, admits the going will not be easy for Hart in Iowa.
``Clearly, Hart's numbers have gone down,'' she says. And she doesn't think he will ``do any better than that before the Iowa caucus in terms of the polls.'' Ms. Casey says she isn't concerned, though, because ``the polls don't mean anything ... in terms of results.''
``If you travel with him, you see all the support for him. If you read the papers and take a look at the polls, it says, `Gee, there is no hope,''' she continues. ``But the support there seems so real, we feel like we can't ignore it.''
A poll of Iowa voters reported in Sunday's Los Angeles Times shows the former Colorado senator sinking to fifth place, tying with Jesse Jackson and the ``undecideds'' at 6 percent. Only Sen. Albert Gore Jr. trailed Hart. Governor Dukakis lead with 37 percent of those polled.
Internal polling by other campaigns also shows a Hart decline.
Bob Edgar, campaign finance director for Senator Simon, sees no recovery for Hart.
``Our internal poll numbers show him taking a nose dive. ... I don't really see him as a threat in Iowa or New Hampshire. ... The fatal blow for Hart took place a long time ago, and these [recent poll results] are like a fish that lands on the shore - these are the flips and the flops of that.''