As he travels the country making policy addresses this month, former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) is seen as testing the waters for a possible quixotic presidential campaign in 2004.
Observers believe Hart is enjoying the spotlight after years in the political wilderness — and doesn’t mind teasing the media and the Democratic establishment in the process. At the same time, even detractors grudgingly admit that in these perilous times, a senior national security expert and policy wonk like Hart might have something important to say.
But closer to the former Senator’s Troublesome Gulch home outside Denver, some hero-starved Colorado Democrats are quietly wondering whether Hart, in his desire to return to the public arena, might forgo a White House bid and consider challenging Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) instead.
“If he did this, he would immediately be the [Democratic] frontrunner,” said Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver-based pollster. “I think the party would go nuts.”
No one has seen signs that Hart, who twice ran for president, is preparing to seek the Senate seat he held from 1975 to 1987. The Colorado Democratic Party has not heard from him. Neither has the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
An assistant in Hart’s Denver law office said late last week that her boss was preparing for a long road trip and would be unavailable for comment. He was scheduled to appear on ABC’s “This Week” public affairs program on Sunday, after this edition of Roll Call went to press.
Meanwhile, a former colleague who has worked closely with Hart in recent years as co-author of two influential reports on homeland security, ex-Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), said he has no idea what the 66-year-old Democrat’s political plans are.
“We’ve never really discussed politics,” Rudman said.
Hart’s policy speeches are seen as a prelude to a possible long-shot White House run — or at least as a way for him to influence public debate.
“Speculation doesn’t hurt him at all,” said a Colorado Democratic operative with ties to Hart.
For the past few months, the speculation has been about a possible third run for president. The New Republic recently featured a cover story on the two Harvard graduate students who are masterminding the “Hart for President” boomlet, but it made no mention of a possible Senate run. One of the grad students, Antwaun Smith, did not respond to phone and e-mail messages last week.
“I don’t think running for Senate fits in with Hart’s strategy,” Ciruli conceded. “He really wants to be seen as an elder statesman. But it’s possible.”
The idea of a Hart Senate candidacy, however remote, is nevertheless now in the thin ether above the Centennial State, as Democrats scramble to find a credible challenger to Campbell.
“Colorado is proud of Gary Hart and would love any involvement he would have in state affairs,” said Scott Martinez, interim director of the Colorado Democratic Party. “He is Colorado’s favorite son.”
But Colorado is a much different place than it was in 1974, when Hart was fresh off his stint as the highly touted manager of then-Sen. George McGovern’s (D-S.D.) unsuccessful presidential campaign.
Despite its reputation as the most urbane of the Mountain States, Colorado has never been particularly hospitable to liberal Democrats. In fact, all the Democrats to win statewide in recent years — Hart, former Sen. Tim Wirth, former Govs. Dick Lamm and Roy Romer, the popular current Attorney General Ken Salazar, and Campbell himself, who was elected to the House and Senate as a Democrat before switching parties in 1995 — carried streaks of independence.
And Colorado Democrats seem deflated from their 2002 campaign, in which all of their statewide candidates but Salazar fared badly.
“It’s a different state than it was,” said Jack Stansbery, executive director of the Colorado Republican Party.
Ciruli said the surprisingly poor showing by the Democrats’ 2002 Senate candidate, former U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland, has increased the likelihood that Campbell will seek a third term next year, and has thinned the field of potentially strong challengers.
“Democrats have a feeling all of a sudden that maybe we’ve become Utah,” Ciruli said of the Republicans’ newfound electoral dominance in Colorado.
Campbell hasn’t said for sure that he’s running for re-election in 2004, but he’s taking steps in that direction. He recently hired two in-state fundraisers and bought a new truck to use in parades and campaign-style events. He has also been subtly pressured to run again by the White House. But he is considered unpredictable, and no one would be surprised if he decided to retire at the last minute.
Hart has never shown much enthusiasm for some of the more rudimentary elements of campaigning, especially fundraising. But he does have a national following, and that could translate into a reasonably robust campaign treasury.
One strategist for a leading Colorado Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it would take an unconventional Democrat to successfully challenge an unconventional Republican like Campbell. Hart could fit that bill.
“You’d need a maverick,” the strategist said. “It could be an interesting battle if it ever gets to that point.”
An admiring Colorado Democrat called Hart the kind of politician who welcomes a crusade and would not run a conventional campaign.
“There’s a romantic part of him that would say, ‘Hey, let’s not bother looking at the polls, let’s go,’” this Democrat said.
How the questions about Hart’s personal life that doomed his 1988 presidential campaign would play in Colorado today is hard to measure. Stansbery, the GOP chief, said Hart “doesn’t have the same kind of luster that he once had.”
“We’d love it,” he said of a possible Hart Senate bid. “I’m sure the White House wouldn’t be too upset if Hart decided to run either.”
But Hart has remained married to his wife, Lee, for 44 years, despite the rumors about him. And Ciruli predicted that Colorado voters and opinion leaders would be more forgiving than their national counterparts.
“One of [Hart’s] big [stumbling] blocks nationally is the national Democratic establishment and press corps,” Ciruli said. “In Colorado, we don’t have that kind of hostile environment.”
Beyond Hart, state and national Democrats believe they have three potentially strong challengers to Campbell: Salazar, the attorney general; Rep. Mark Udall; and outgoing Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.
But whether any of them will run remains an open question. Salazar, a conservative Democrat who grew up in the San Luis Valley, is considered much more interested in a run for governor in 2006, when the popular incumbent, Gov. Bill Owens (R), is expected to step aside. Udall has made no secret of his statewide ambitions, but is far more likely to be willing to risk his relatively secure Boulder-area House seat for an open Senate seat rather than a challenge to an incumbent. And Webb, who weighed a Senate run in the 2002 cycle, has been Sphinx-like about his plans.
“The only thing he’s been talking about is a long vacation after July 21,” the end of his third mayoral term, said Webb spokesman Andrew Hudson.
Meanwhile, outgoing Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter Jr. (D) is exploring the possibility of a Senate bid. And a political neophyte, Mike Miles, a former foreign service officer from Colorado Springs, has already declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination.
The Colorado Democratic Party is in a transition period and won’t be focusing heavily on the Senate race until a new party chairman is selected in mid-March. Christopher Gates, the president of the National Civic League, a nonprofit organization that promotes community democracy, is considered the frontrunner for that post.