Should Gary Hart get back into the presidential race?

The erstwhile Democratic front-runner, who was forced to withdraw last May in the wake of the Monkey Business and Donna Rice, was reportedly pondering this very question this week while on vacation in Ireland. His ex-campaign manager William Dixon had said that a Hart reentry was "likely." But yesterday, even as a former aide snuffed out rumors of a Hart reentry, various wise men of presidential campaigns past were hardly rushing to offer their sage advice.

"I don't tell people what to do about politics or marriage," said former senator Eugene McCarthy, who ran for president in 1968, when he made a big splash, and again in 1972 and 1976, when he didn't. "I don't give advice on anything. I don't think he'll call me anyway.

"I think it would confuse the campaign, especially if he stayed on," McCarthy said. "When he got out, I thought it was probably a good thing for the Democratic Party. The campaign was bound to have been personalized. With him out, the party might develop a central theme."

He added, however, that Hart, who was denied campaign matching funds by the Federal Election Commission because the necessary papers weren't filed in time, might get back in to raise some quick money. "Not that I think it would justify his staying on as a serious candidate."

McCarthy's remarks were graced by an occasional chuckle.

"I don't think it's very funny," said Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee who bested Hart in 1984, now a lawyer in Minneapolis. "I think it would be a serious mistake for him, for the country and for the party to change his mind."

If Hart did come back, "it would be very distressing for him," Mondale said. "He would find his campaign dominated with questions of a personal nature and not issues of public policy ... I don't say this with any sense of joy. Only sadness."

Edmund Muskie, who ran for president in 1972, said the Donna Rice episode may not be as serious an impediment as it seems. It is indeed possible, he acknowledged, that many people still have not heard of her. "I remember taking a poll of my own up in Maine years ago, and the surprising thing was that a lot of people never read the newspapers or listen to the evening news."

"It's his prerogative," Muskie said. "It's certainly a most interesting development. Who knows? Maybe those people who supported him were not as negative to the events that prompted him to withdraw as everyone concluded. Historically, you may remember Grover Cleveland ran and won when it was widely known that he had an illegitimate child." The ditty of the time, Muskie recalled, was: "Ma! Ma! Where's my pa? He's gone to the White House! Ha, ha, ha!"

Muskie, who himself was the front-runner until he was reported as crying during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, said, "When you've gotten that close to the nomination as a front-runner, it's pretty hard to give up. I don't suppose he's got that much more to lose. Then again, he may decide that peace and quiet is awfully nice. That's what I decided."

Sargent Shriver, who was George McGovern's running mate in 1972 and then tried for the presidential nomination in 1976, was initially nonplused by the Hart rumor. At one point he giggled.

"I don't know, I must say," Shriver said. "That's my big answer.

"I think it would present him with a huge obstacle to his success, but that doesn't mean he couldn't overcome it, I suppose.

"If he does get back in, one thing he could prove is that the press is powerless, that all the notoriety has no effect on him -- that is, if he runs and wins. He could have that personal satisfaction."

And then, of course, Richard Nixon, who sent Hart a note of congratulations after he blew up at the press, could mail him another. Shriver recalled Nixon's famous press conference in 1962, after losing the California gubernatorial race, in which the future president said, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

"Anyone of Muskie's vintage or mine who remembers Nixon counting himself out," Shriver said, "is hesitant to say that anybody in politics is dead.