Hart waits for the US to `grow up'

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Suspend disbelief for an instant. Suppose there had been no Donna Rice, no good ship Monkey Business, or at least a front-running Democratic candidate a mite less feckless in matters of marital fidelity (we are talking about that vanished, prudish age of the late 1980s). Suppose, too, no other calamity struck before election day 1988, and our winning candidate managed a reasonably competent first term. The name of the ``New Democrat'' in the White House right now would not be Bill Clinton, but Gary Hart.

It was, of course, not to be. Revelation in May 1987 of Mr Hart's liaison dangereuse with the comely Ms Rice sank his candidacy irretrievably. Today a chastened, wiser Mr Hart is to be found in the employ of an international law firm in Denver, travelling the world - especially the former Soviet Union - to drum up opportunities for US trade and investment. He sports a thicker, greyer head of hair than in his heyday, and the beginnings of a paunch. But amazingly, eight years after his disgrace, Gary Hart is again nibbling at America's political consciousness.

In one sense, he never really left it. Mr Hart, and the treatment he received, is where any debate about the private lives of US public figures begins. He was, it could be argued, the necessary sacrifice which allowed that equal sinner Bill Clinton to be elected in 1992. Was Mr Hart crucified unfairly by the media? The argument still smoulders, and soon it could burst into flames again. At 58, Mr Hart is considering a comeback by running next year for the Senate seat he gave up in 1986.

``The whole political world has grown up,'' he asserted as he dropped his bombshell to the Denver Post last month, implying that these days America can handle his type of peccadillo. Others might simply conclude that the whole political world has gone mad. Polls show Mr Hart would be trounced by any declared opponent for the Colorado seat being vacated by Hank Brown, a Republican. The Republican Party's state chairman salivates at the prospect of a Hart campaign: If Mr Hart runs, a photo of Ms Rice perched on his lap ``will be on every billboard in Colorado''.

Even from fellow Democrats, the faint praise has been deafening. Once Mr Hart, with his innovative ideas on defence, national service and marrying market economics with social awareness, was Pied Piper for a new, younger generation of Democrats. He conveyed dash and excitement - in his politics as well as his sex life the forebear of Bill Clinton. Today, only high name recognition remains. The young of the 1990s seek other gurus. Baby Boomers who once believed in Mr Hart have moved on too, left only with disappointment and a lingering sense of betrayal.

Yet the very notion of a Hart candidacy encapsulates the plight of the Democratic Party. Colorado, in keeping with the entire country, has shifted rightward since the 1980s. There, as in so many other places, the Democrats have a dearth of plausible congressional candidates. Intriguingly, the urgings to arms have come not from local Democrats, but from nationally known Senators, like Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and John Breaux of Louisiana, and - to hear Mr Hart tell it - ``from some people in the administration''. Can things really be that desperate? Evidently yes.