GARY Hart admits to a ``hankering'' to be the leader who brings about what he considers ``needed changes'' in the direction the United States is moving. That's not an announcement of presidential candidacy -- but it comes close. The media and Mr. Hart's fellow Democrats don't find his aspirations unrealistic, despite the decisive way Walter Mondale pushed him aside in 1984.
Democratic leaders remember that the youthful Colorado senator showed during the primaries that he had a wide base of support, reaching out to independents and some Republicans. The senator's political outreach, not enjoyed by any of the other likely contenders for the 1988 nomination, makes his possible candidacy so appealing to party chieftains.
Hart still bears a ``liberal'' stamp, because in 1972 he ran George McGovern's presidential campaign. Yet in many ways in recent years he has moved toward the center.
Today Hart calls it a ``political disaster'' for Democrats to embrace protectionism. He says President Reagan has taken a particularly good issue away from the Democrats: tax reform. And at breakfast the other morning he was grumbling over the way the Republicans had put one over on the Democrats by getting behind balance-the-budget legislation.
Hart talks of Ronald Reagan's ability to ``epitomize strength'' and how the President has been able to keep the Democrats on the defensive. The senator is not an unalloyed admirer of the Republican President. But he is not unmindful that Reagan might provide a few useful pointers for anyone seeking to succeed him.
Hart still contends -- as he was saying in 1984 -- that a Democrat must have ``new ideas'' to win the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt is his model.
To create new ideas for 1988, Senator Hart has set up a new think tank, the Center for a New Democracy. Already some thoughts are seeping out. One is to increase flexibility in the labor market, through increased use of computers to provide better match-up of people and jobs and through sizable funds for training programs and subsidizing reemployment.
Hart is pushing hard for an import fee of $10 on every barrel of crude oil or petroleum product entering the US. He believes it is more important than ever for the United States to achieve energy independence.
He is particularly interested in finding ways to promote long-term economic growth, and to reform and modernize US defenses. He says the principles of the Democratic Party should not change -- that the party should continue to stand for equal rights and opportunities, and should be the party of the people.
In 1984 Hart was the candidate of ``new ideas,'' and Walter Mondale demolished him with the ``Where's the beef?'' query aimed at Hart's program. A lot of voters got the idea that Hart was mainly a candidate of pretty words, but he didn't have much substance. It was an unfair allegation. But it stuck.
Today Hart must make certain that his program for tomorrow is not only very carefully worked out, but is presented in a way that doesn't make him vulnerable to charges of being too general or impractical. His think tank, made up of some very bright people, is calculated to provide him that kind of protection.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.