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A few words to Gary Hart

DEAR Senator: Not long ago you said, in an interview, that the press was giving the field of Democratic candidates a bad rap by downgrading them. The presidential aspirants were, in your opinion, all top-flight people who were fit to lead the nation.

Now, all of a sudden, you are back in the race and implying it was because of the lack of stature among these same candidates, saying it is your duty to offer yourself and your views to the voters.

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It sounded as if you had become convinced that this reentry was a selfless act to help your nation and your party. That position is awfully difficult to accept.

The national head of the party, Paul Kirk, certainly isn't amused by your leap back into the fray. He and many other Democratic leaders deplore your reappearance. They think you have seriously devalued the Democratic Party's effort to regain the presidency. They see the return of Gary Hart jokes. They see the headlines again focused on what you call peccadilloes. They wonder whether the voters will now take the Democratic presidential campaign seriously.

You present yourself as someone with new ideas and with the temperament, experience, and know-how that make you especially qualified to lead the nation. You brand all those reports about your extramarital relationships as ``trivia.'' And you sound as though you are incensed over the press's role in bringing these matters to your attention - and to that of the general public. You appear to be saying now that it was this unfair press treatment, not your own conduct, that caused you to step out of the campaign in the first place.

Trivia? Well, that is something that you may find difficult to sell to the voters. As the Washington Post says, editorially, your position papers won't be an antidote or an answer to the trouble you got into last spring. And the New York Times also asserts editorially that the public is entitled to know the real makeup of its next president - ``including judgment, character, and stability, the very qualities that were called into question by Mr. Hart's behavior....''

Now, it is very possible that you could make fools out of all of us who see your reentry as getting you nowhere. The polls show you to be the frontrunner. But the polls also show that there is a massive ``no'' vote against you - one that would certainly deny you the presidency if you somehow gained the nomination.

Actually, by one scenario your resumed campaign could aid your party - by causing the voters to give no candidate a commanding and decisive delegate advantage. This could lead the convention to a deadlock and a drafting of a noncandidate - like Mario Cuomo or Sam Nunn or Bill Bradley - who might give the Democrats a better chance of winning the general election.

But the consensus that developed quickly after your surprise announcement is that your presence in the race is more divisive than helpful, and that your future as a candidate is, at best, dim.

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Your out-of-the-blue announcement of going again for the prize sure caught all the political writers off guard. Their punditry had left not the slightest doubt that you were out for good. You stuck it to 'em, Gary.

But it's this ``trivia'' allegation that's going to make your road to the presidency difficult - if not impossible. You don't seem to realize that ``family values'' remain very important to most Americans.

It isn't enough for you to say you have made some ``mistakes'' and that you are only ``human.'' Yes, people are forgiving. But there are reports - which you may be able to disprove - that there has been a pattern of repeated so-called ``mistakes'' on your part. And with your admission of ``mistakes'' there has been little indication that you considered what you were doing ``wrong.'' Or that you felt at all repentant.

You may well assert that this is an unfair standard, one that was not used with some presidents of fairly recent vintage - most notably John Kennedy. Well, it would have been applied if the voters had known what was going on. In those days the press - wrongly - kept reports about such extramarital affairs out of its stories.

Your resumption speech in Concord, N.H., certainly got a lot of attention. But one of your observations seems worthy of special comment. That's where you said: ``I don't have a national headquarters or staff. I don't have any money. I don't have pollsters or consultants or media advisers or political endorsements. But I have something even better. I have the power of ideas, and I can govern this country.''

You have come up with some well-thought-out position papers. But this ``power of ideas'' claim: That is political rhetoric until proved true.

Then there's the boast ``I can govern this country.'' Perhaps you are right. But what have you ever run, senator? You've legislated. But isn't that about it?

Yes, you were presidential candidate George McGovern's campaign manager. You ran that campaign - but not very well. Those who covered that run for the presidency recall, vividly, the many mess-ups - especially some very strange and expensive routing of the McGovern stops around the United States.

Senator, absent those ``mistakes'' you admit you made in your personal life, you would be well on your way to a strong challenge for the presidency. But in politics you can't outrun such problems in a few months.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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