Gary Hart began the most crucial phase of his renewed presidential campaign Sunday with an hourlong television interview here and appeared more comfortable in public than at any time since his candidacy was derailed last May over questions about his "womanizing."
Relaxed, often jocular, Hart sparred over personal questions and public policy with former television journalist Marvin Kalb, declaring at one point that his reported dalliance with Miami model Donna Rice was "a damn fool mistake, but the question before the American people is whether it disqualifies me to govern the country."
But why, Kalb asked, would the voters trust Hart to govern them "if, as the polls indicate, many believe you lied to them about the Rice affair?"
Hart replied: "Well, if so many feel that way, I won't be elected. But this is for the people to decide, not the press and the pundits and the party officials."
All of this is part of the credibility question that political professionals believe Hart must resolve soon as the public begins to focus on the 1988 race, whose first voter tests are a month away.
In discussing his desire to change the country's economic and military policies, Hart displayed his widely recognized ability to synthesize and articulate policy proposals.
He called for greatly reducing the nuclear arms stockpile, said all of the Arab states should recognize Israel's right to exist if they want to solve problems in the Middle East and said revenues would have to be raised by a combination of taxes and fees if the deficit is to be cut.
Those positions are not much different from ones held by the six other Democratic candidates, but Hart contended that "what makes me different from the other Democratic candidates is that I have tried to relate all of these policies. They work together."
Hart appeared at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government for a program hosted by Kalb, who is also doing similar public television shows with all the presidential candidates.
Presses for Explanation
Although he spent half the show on issues, Kalb, now an official of the Kennedy School, emphasized the personal nature of a vote for President and pressed Hart to explain why the voters would trust his judgment given the Rice affair.
"The issue of judgment has to be judged over a lifetime," Hart countered, adding: "Judgment also has to do with whether you voted against the Reagan tax cuts in 1981, whether you opposed the MX missile, whether you fought against aid to the Contras."
In the show, which was broadcast on public television, Kalb challenged Hart's recent statement that the press is more interested in the sex lives of public officials than in writing about issues and policy.
"Sex sells and substance doesn't, is that what you are saying?" Kalb asked.
Hart, grinning, answered: "Do you disagree with that?"
When Kalb said, "No," the crowd of more than 500 burst into laughter and applause.
Right to Privacy
Hart denied he was running against the press in his revived campaign, but he continued to argue that candidates have a right to privacy and complained that during the Rice incident reporters were "peeping in my windows and hiding in my bushes."
In random interviews, reactions by those who attended the show were generally positive, although Hart got into a heated exchange with a female student at a reception after the show when she accused him of mistreating his wife, Lee, by asking her to stick by him during the humiliating Rice affair.
Saying that Lee Hart makes up her own mind, Hart said to the young woman: "I resent what you are saying. I find it offensive to my wife."
Maine resident Bill Herkenham, 30, said he was still troubled by Hart's personal conduct last May, but added: "Does it disqualify him from governing? No."
In a brief interview with The Times after the show, Hart, who will campaign in New Hampshire later this week, said of the continuing questions about his personal conduct: "I think very soon all of this is going to run out. The press is interested in one thing but the public is interested in issues and the future of the country."