"There's a theory that I did well here last year because nobody knew who I was," Colorado Sen. Gary Hart joked at a recent gathering of Maine Democratic leaders, nearly all of whom had staunchly opposed his 1984 presidential candidacy.
All kidding aside, a large measure of Hart's surprising success here and in other 1984 Democratic presidential battlegrounds clearly stemmed from his perceived break with some of the Democratic Party's time-worn attitudes, as personified by former Vice President Walter F. Mondale. But this negative asset was not enough in 1984, and Hart knows that it alone will not make him the party's nominee in 1988.
That is why, more than two years before the 1988 campaign officially begins, Hart has traveled from Maine to California trying out a broad new theme--he calls it "true patriotism"--which tempers the bright promise of individual opportunity with a solemn sense of civic obligation as embodied in such proposals as national service for young Americans.
A number of other Democrats are also trying out new strategies and rhetoric that they hope will get their party back on track and promote their own presidential prospects. But, right now, Hart's efforts have a special importance that reaches beyond his own political fortunes: widely regarded as the early front-runner for 1988, he is likely to have the first crack at redefining his party in his own image.
And if he should prove successful--still a very big if at this early date--Hart could influence the shape of battles between the two major political parties for years to come.
Under the "true patriotism" banner, Hart hopes not only to establish a clear political identity for himself but ultimately to recast his beleaguered party, helping Democrats challenge the GOP's now-preeminent claim to flag and country and broadening the public perception of Democrats as a party preoccupied with special programs for special interests.
"This party has wandered in the wilderness for five or 10 years," Hart lamented on his Maine sojourn. The reason, he contended, "is an unwillingness to face the changing world."
Hart's appearance in Maine, in response to an invitation to address Maine Democrats' "fall festival" last month, was itself evidence of the one-time outsider's new-found prominence in his party's inner councils. He received a warm greeting from Gov. Joseph E. Brennan and Sen. George J. Mitchell, who like nearly everyone else in the party leadership had gone all-out for Mondale in the 1984 Maine caucuses, in which Hart scored a stunning victory.
Republican professionals are impressed with Hart's prospects too. "I would think that if the Democrats were choosing today, Gary Hart would probably have an edge," Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. said. "He was runner-up last time, and at least he has tried to distance himself from the old New Deal liberalism."
Even though most politicians expect a renewed Hart presidential bid in 1988, the senator also has some other things on his mind. He must first rid himself of the substantial debt left over from his 1984 campaign, and he must decide whether to seek reelection to the Senate in Colorado when his current term expires next year.
'Where's the Beef?'
As serious as these problems are, though, Hart's need to cast his political profile in bold relief is more fundamental. In a sense, Hart is still trying to find a convincing response to the question, "Where's the beef? "--the catchy fast-food-chain slogan with which Mondale mocked Hart's claim to being the candidate of new ideas.
To Hart's partisans, it seemed paradoxical and unfair that Mondale's taunt should have plagued Hart, who had worked diligently to develop positions on issues. The problem, they later acknowledged, was that their candidate's individual proposals did not seem to fall into a coherent pattern that voters could grasp intellectually and emotionally.
Thus, his theme of "true patriotism" is designed to arm Hart with an approach "that cuts across issue lines," one Hart adviser said. "It relates his particular proposals to broader concerns."
Hart strategists believe that his new theme can provide a compelling credo for the Democratic Party as it searches for new purposes and directions. They argue that "true patriotism" benefits by comparison with President Reagan's view of patriotism, which they contend is narrow and selfish.
'You Can Have It All'
"What Reagan is saying is that you can have it all, without a serious approach that requires discipline by the government and the governed," said William Dixon, chief of Hart's Senate staff. "But Gary Hart is saying true patriotism isn't just red, white and blue; there are some tough choices, folks. He is saying: I call for a $10-a-barrel surcharge on imported oil, I call for spending funds on retraining Americans" whose jobs are being eliminated by competition from cheap imports.
Apart from its substance, the concept of "true patriotism" also helps Hart put some flesh and blood on the intellectual bones of his prospective candidacy. "Talking about patriotism allows him to talk about values and the kind of person he is," said Beth Smith, Hart's press secretary.
Criticized at times during the 1984 campaign for seeming detached and remote from his audiences, Hart appeared comfortable drawing on his own personal experience to hammer home his "true patriotism" theme to about 500 Maine Democrats at the Augusta Civic Center.
"I did not work as a student volunteer in 1960 for John Kennedy to be told that the people of this country have become selfish and materialistic," Hart declared. "And I did not work for Robert Kennedy in 1968 to be told that this country is now prepared to turn its back on civil rights and equality for women."
Strong 'Hart Throbs'
Anthony Buxton, Maine's Democratic chairman, said afterward: "The people who are strong 'Hart throbs' thought that the speech was the best Hart has ever given in Maine." He said Hart's theme struck an emotional chord among the Maine party faithful.
Noting that Bruce Springsteen was belting out "Born in the U.S.A." over the civic center public address system just before Hart spoke, Buxton said: "We think Hart is right when he says that the Republicans don't have any claim to the flag that we don't have."
For all the potential appeal of patriotism, some political professionals question whether the theme suits Hart's personal political makeup.
"Slogans have to fit a candidate's personality and his constituency," said Ted Van Dyk, issues adviser to the 1972 presidential campaign of George S. McGovern, which Hart managed. Van Dyk doubts that the patriotism theme, with its conscientious stress on duty, would hold much appeal for the so-called Yuppies, the upper-middle-class strivers who were considered to be the core of Hart's political support in 1984.
Hart seems to realize that the Yuppies do not provide him with a sufficient political base and that he must appeal to more traditional Democratic constituencies, which were conspicuously absent from the ranks of his followers in 1984.
In a commencement address last spring at Alabama's Talladega College, the state's first black college, Hart branded as "politically unacceptable" and "morally intolerable" the notion that the Democrats should distance themselves from blacks to gain more white support. "Far better to lose a few votes for our principle than to lose our principles for a few votes," he said.
More recently, at a meeting with labor representatives, Hart discussed trade legislation and heard union proposals for restricting imports. Later, though Hart opposes protectionist measures, he let union officials know that he would vote to cut off Senate debate on a bill to slash textile and shoe imports, thus helping prospects for passage of the labor-supported bill. Smith, Hart's press secretary, said that such a vote would be consistent with Hart's past opposition to filibusters.
"He is reaching out to labor with an olive branch," said Richard Murphy, political director of the Service Employes Union, and some in labor are responding. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland assured Hart earlier this year, Murphy said, that the union's leadership, which bitterly opposed him in 1984, would hold no grudge if he runs in 1988.
Paying a High Price
Although it is clear that Hart has benefited greatly from his 1984 campaign experience, it is equally true that he is paying a high price.
The 1984 Hart campaign's report to the Federal Election Commission at the end of September showed a debt of $3.5 million, including an outstanding bank loan of $700,000. The loan is particularly onerous because it must be paid off in full; Hart's aides hope to negotiate a more favorable settlement on the other obligations.
Dixon, who had earlier predicted that the bank debt would be liquidated by "World Series time" and the rest of the debt paid off by the middle of 1986, said more recently: "I guarantee that the bank debt will be paid off by the middle of 1986." By the end of next year, he added, "we'll be in excellent shape" on the rest of the debt.
Hart reckons that when he travels out of Washington, he spends about half his time trying to raise funds to meet the debt. His task is complicated because supporters who gave the maximum $1,000 to his campaign in 1984 can no longer contribute.
"Being in debt like this is a little like being Argentina," Hart joked at a breakfast with Maine Democratic legislators here last month. "I'm applying the principles of international finance to national politics, running up the debt so high that the banks can't afford to let you go bankrupt."
No PAC Contributions
Hart may have made it more difficult for himself to pay off the debt by refusing to accept contributions from political action committees. That is consistent with the much-heralded position he took during the presidential campaign to dramatize his independence from the special interests that PACs represent.
Despite his qualms about PAC contributions, however, Hart has established a tax-exempt foundation called Center for a New Democracy, which, unlike candidates, is free under federal law to accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. The foundation is to conduct research and sponsor conferences on major issues, and its executive director, former Kansas Rep. Martha Keys, who is Hart's sister-in-law, estimates its 1985 operating budget at $400,000 to $500,000.
At his breakfast with Maine legislators, Hart cited the center as evidence of his efforts to "continue the search for new policies for the future." And the material developed by the center would seem likely to supplement the research that a future Hart presidential campaign would need to undertake.
Work Called Nonpartisan
But Keys, distinguishing the foundation's work from political activity, says its work will be made generally available. "We are a research and educational institution operating in a way that is nonpartisan," she said. "We're not doing anything just for Gary Hart. Everything we do is intended to bring as many people as possible into the policy process."
Although Hart probably has another year or more before he would be expected to announce whether he will seek the presidency in 1988, he has much less time--about 60 days by his own reckoning--to declare his intentions about his Senate seat.
Few politicians expect Hart to run again because running for President has become a full-time job; one well-connected source says that he has already decided against another Senate race and that Colorado Rep. Timothy E. Wirth will be the party's next Senate nominee. Although aides to both men deny this, they say Hart has urged Wirth to prepare for a Senate race if Hart ultimately decides against it.
Hart admits that it would be difficult to run for the presidency while serving in the Senate seat he first won in 1974, but he says he will not make a final decision about the Senate until the end of this year.
"You can't do both well," he said. "But you can do both."