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Who's Hart?

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Gary Hart's flash to co-front-runnership for the Democratic nomination has been meteoric, truly a political phenomenon. He came from second in Iowa's caucuses to victories in New Hampshire and Maine and to an expected win in Vermont's nonbinding primary today. He is leading in the Massachusetts primary, looking for a clean New England sweep. In national polls, he's pulled from 2 to 1 behind Walter Mondale to even in a week.

What's going on?

It takes nothing away from Mr. Hart to point out that this blinding speed in his rise raises the prospect that the Democrats could quickly commit themselves to his candidacy without knowing much about him at all.

Next week is Super Tuesday, with nine states picking convention delegates. The Democrats who designed this year's nomination race course deliberately front-loaded it, bunching events so that a front-runner - namely Mondale with labor's endorsement - could wrap it up early.

A flaw in the system all along was that an outsider might shock the front-runner, catch a wave of publicity and fervor, and benefit from the very same front-loaded system designed to confirm the party establishment's choice. Americans in both parties show a strong streak of populism; they don't always want to listen to what the party bosses say.

In any event, Hart is suddenly enjoying incredible press attention. The number of newsmen and cameramen traveling with him has increased tenfold. In the crucial weeks ahead it's going to take some sober detachment to look at his candidacy in terms of how much is media surge and how much is substance.

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