American politics has seldom seen a phenomenon like Gary Hart. In 10 days the Democratic senator from Colorado has catapulted from relative obscurity to become his party’s leading candidate for the 1984 presidential nomination. At the same time, former vice-president Walter Mondale has watched his once unstoppable juggernaut approach the brink of total disintegration. Unless Mondale won at least two out of three critical southern primaries early this week—and a majority of the nine voting contests scheduled nationwide—he could be forced to end his three-year quest for the presidency and cede the nomination to Hart.
Hart’s unprecedented rise and Mondale’s dizzying fall continued last week. First, the senator won handily in the Maine caucuses—50 to 44 per cent. Then, in a nonbinding vote in Vermont, Hart outpolled Mondale by an astonishing margin—71 to 20 per cent. And, finally, he parlayed those New England victories into a substantial caucus win in Wyoming on the weekend, with 60 per cent of the vote compared to Mondale’s 36 per cent. Each new triumph, beginning with Hart’s surprise firstplace showing in New Hampshire on Feb. 28, added to his momentum. There was an avalanche of free media exposure and, with it, floods of offers of volunteer time and campaign contributions. Campaign staff had new phone banks installed at Hart’s Washington headquarters. But even those proved unable to meet the demand.
The Democratic party is familiar with surging dark-horse candidates. Former senator George McGovern emerged in 1972 to topple front-runner Edmund Muskie. And the little-known Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter stunned the party establishment in 1976 by winning both the nomination and the Oval Office. But no candidate has travelled so far or so fast as Gary Hart. Two weeks before the fateful New Hampshire primary, a Gallup poll reported that 49 per cent of Democrats favored Móndale. Rev. Jesse Jackson was second, and Senator John Glenn third. Hart tied for last place as the choice of a mere two per cent of those polled. Last week one national survey
showed Hart in a dead heat with Móndale—and the only Democrat capable of defeating President Ronald Reagan in November.
That dramatic reversal in political fortunes is all the more ironic because the Democrats drafted the 1984 campaign rules precisely to prevent such a possibility. Party officials deliberately “front-loaded” the primary and caucus season so that the eventual nominee would be clear long before the July convention, leaving him free to focus the attack on Reagan. The rules were designed to have favored Móndale—a traditional liberal Democrat with strong ties to the party’s most vital constituencies: organized labor,
teachers, blacks and Jews. This year the Democratic leaders decided there would be no surprises. With the best grassroots political orig ganization and the most money, Mondale would •S take the early primaries lí easily, gaining enough i| momentum to make his 'I nomination inevitable. '3 To that end, Mondale
campaigned with restraint, largely ignoring the other candidates’ attacks on him because he was so confident of victory.
That caution and sense of complacency loom now as the causes of the former vice-president’s disastrous showing. But no single explanation will suffice. Hart’s generational theme—the politics of the past vs. the politics of the future—is clearly having an impact. The failed candidacies of both Glenn and Jackson have also benefited Hart. On television, Hart’s Kennedyesque good looks compete successfully against Mondale’s slick Rodney Dangerfield haircut and old-fashioned dark suits.
Whatever the reasons, last week the momentum belonged to Hart as Móndale campaigned desperately in the South. He won endorsements from Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Sr., the widow and father of the slain civil rights leader. He also attended a down-home barbecue with Carter in Plains, trying to shore up his Georgian support. But, as Mondale himself conceded: “The key to my campaign is the issues. Endorsements, as we are learning, are of marginal value.”
Attacking Hart directly, Mondale scoffed at the notion that his challenger represents “new ideas” or “fresh approaches.” Dismissing a series of Hart stands, he added: “If you fight for better schools, you are old. But if you fight for big oil, you are new.” As he has throughout, Mondale refused to apologize for his belief in New Deal liberalism. “I am what I am,” he said. “What you see is what you get.”
Last week’s voter surveys indicated that Hart—still without an extensive political network—was rapidly closing Mondale’s early lead in the South and threatening to overtake him. Even in Georgia, a state generally conceded to Mondale only a week ago, the outcome remained in doubt. And the Hart charge seemed to be fuelled by his capacity to appeal, simultaneously, to conservatives and liberals, middle-class professionals and blue-collar unionists, prodefence hawks and antinuclear doves. “If you asked me what Gary Hart believes,” said one Georgia state senator last week, “I would be hard pressed to say. I guess it’s his age—he’s young— and the fact that he is not connected to the past.”
Most Americans know little of Hart or what he stands for. But in the volatile crucible of U.S. politics, such apparent handicaps can suddenly transform themselves into overwhelming advantages. Hart, a man who believes passionately in his own destiny, has somehow released a political tidal wave. The Hart campaign calls it a miracle. It may take another miracle to stop it.
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