He will not say it, in so many words, and neither will his wife or daughter, but what each of them seems to release, in various spoken and unspoken ways, is that these are the last political moments of Gary Hart: the man who booted it all away. If you listen, the sadness of this apparent fact just bleeds out, like air trying to escape the cold Iowa earth.

"And in my second term ..." the candidate says one evening to a roomful of Catholic college students in Davenport. He is in the middle of a long, serious, even brilliant discourse on national defense and foreign policy when he interrupts himself to say this. He doesn't finish the sentence -- only breaks up, in a kind of Kansas cackle. His whole upper body is shaking, as if the thought is wonderfully preposterous.

"I mean, hopefully we won't have to worry about this, and Dad'll be president next November and everything, but, if you want to know, I really couldn't see myself working -- after this -- for another campaign," says his 23-year-old daughter one afternoon outside the Casual Cafe in Anamosa, Iowa (pop. 4,958). Andrea is the best campaigner in the family and a remarkably charming Gary Hart look-alike. Inside, her father is standing on a Naugahyde chair, his back against a knotty-pine wall, finishing up a 45-minute pitch to six booths and six tables and a row of counter stools all warmed with the Iowa behinds of potential caucus-goers. The candidate is in his black stub-toed cowboy boots and there is a penknife in his pocket, which he fumbles with every once in a while as he speaks.

And Lee Hart, maybe the most inscrutable public wife in America, what would she seem to be giving up between the lines?

Call it joint self-deprecation, for lack of something better.

"Gary, Gary," she says one just-dark evening in the anteroom of a Quaker Meeting House in Concord, N.H. She has just rejoined her husband after an interval of 24 hours, and in her hand is a no-frills Hart for President brochure, hot off the presses. This is the first time Lee has seen the brochure. Printed on its cover is the following: "Sometimes the best thing to do is what you feel you must do ... If you believe in yourself and you believe in what you are doing, then I believe -- we believe -- you don't give up ... Let's let the people decide."

"Gary, there are no pictures of MacArthur here," Lee says.

The candidate has spent much of the past 90 minutes quietly telling his audience of approximately 30 people who've clogged into this hot, unadorned room that he's different, he's always been different, he doesn't play by the rules, he doesn't want to play by the institutional rules, and this has much to do with why he is so disliked by the press and his party; and that if you wish but one tiny hallmark of this differentness, you could take a look at his campaign literature: no four-color printing, folks, no pictures of the family homestead or the family dog -- whose name is MacArthur.

And the just-arrived Lee says, with something that seems close to taunt in her voice, these words being nearly the first words she has spoken to him in person since yesterday, when their paths split in Dubuque: "Gary, how can we expect to win this thing if we're not going to put MacArthur in? Yes, I really do think we should put MacArthur in."

And the candidate answers, not looking at her, but toward his boots, putting his hand on the small of her back, that thin flat grimace of a smile returned to his handsome ruddy face: "No, babe, no MacArthur." He is easing her toward the car that's waiting outside to take both of them upstate into a snowstorm.

Lastly, consider this. It's from Sue Casey, Gary Hart's canny, hard-working campaign manager. She was with him in '84, too; she has written a book about him, and, like everyone else in the inner circle, seems a hopeless Hart believer -- although she would deny this last part, of course.

"I think the voters are struggling right now with what they're going to do about Gary," she says. "What if he does horribly? You mean 'horribly,' as in last in Iowa and a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire with, say, only 5 percent? Well, my guess is that, if he does that poorly, and of course I don't think he will, then we'd probably try to hang on until Super Tuesday -- but I can't imagine us trying to deny past then what we already know -- what we would already know."

It's only the smallest rhetorical slip. And maybe an unfair reading in.

These have to be the cruelest days, because they are the dismissive days. Gary Hart, national joke. Just say those two words in certain quarters: Gary Hart. Ha. Ha. Please, please, stop it, you're killing me.

David Letterman, national jokester: "Inspired by, uh, Gary Hart, the Ford Motor Company this afternoon announced it was resuming production of the Edsel. For me, hey, I'm just glad the guy's dating again."

Tonight, all over Iowa, some ordinary Americans are going to have their sober say -- and not just about the political fate of Gary Hart, of course. No pundit, in Washington or Des Moines, no national jokester, in Hollywood or New York, knows for sure what tonight's caucuses are going to bring, or even what the turnout will be in all those iconographic Iowa church basements, firehouses, living rooms and at least one tavern that add up to 2,487 quirky precincts.

The estimates of the caucus turnout have ranged in recent days from 60,000 to 250,000 in a state where there are 2.8 million people and four times as many hogs -- and nearly that much inrush of media in the past several weeks, or so it seems. But at least something real, and not speculated, is finally going to happen this evening in the 1988 campaign. And for all the world, it appears this is the political end of Gary Warren Hart, who a spring ago had the Democratic electorate dreaming all his dreams, or so it appeared.

Iowa, seemingly the most American of places, is where you find hand-lettered notes like this scrawled on cafe' bulletin boards: "Wanted: Labor. Nissen Barn at Stone City. Willie." Iowa is where you pass highway signs that read: "Time Ends. Eternity Where?" Iowa is where you find pride, with a capital P: "Whitaker's Market. 100 percent Home Owned."

The candidate won't be in Iowa this evening, or that is the plan anyway. He is due to fly out of the state at 9:30 this morning, in coach, headed for Boston. His campaign schedulers never know the plans for sure until about 48 hours ahead of time, and even then there seems a kind of let's-wing-it-as-we-go approach. (When you reach his Denver campaign office now, they say disarming things like: "We'll call you back with the schedule as soon as we can get it. Uh, do you mind if we call collect?") Hart is scheduled to spend today in New Hampshire, where another verdict will come eight days hence. He has agreed to face the cruel cameras of network TV in Manchester, N.H., tonight.

Four years ago, in New Hampshire, Gary Hart stopped cold, at least for a minute, the vaunted "juggernaut" of Walter Mondale. Suddenly he was on the cover of Newsweek heaving an ax in his woodcutter's shirt.

"You can get awfully famous in this country in seven days," Gary Hart told a documentary filmmaker four years ago. He was referring to the blurring time between the Iowa and New Hampshire votes, but in an entirely different sense the words might apply as well to alleged monkey business in Bimini, to certain town houses on Capitol Hill.

The cruelest days. So former House speaker Tip O'Neill goes on the "Today" show and says flatly to Bryant Gumbel: No way, Gary's not his cup of tea, doesn't like him a crack, a man who deceived his party and his family.

So national columnists write sentences such as: "With the candidacy of Gary Hart falling off the earth in Iowa ..."

So supermarket tabloids scream: GARY HART'S 15 YEARS OF ADULTERY. (This in the Star, whose inside headline on its four-page "special report" is: GET SHIRLEY MACLAINE OUT OF THAT ROOM!)

So letters-to-the-editor writers say things like: "He is telling Iowans that we should vote for him because in the past men who were adulterers sometimes made competent presidents. But Senator Hart neglects to mention that other men who suffered such moral impoverishment have made some of our worst presidents -- the glib, handsome and self-righteous Warren Harding, for example." (Fred Antczak, 1303 Southview Circle, Coralville, Iowa, writing a week ago yesterday in The Des Moines Register.)

The cruelest days, the dismissive days, the all-but-hooted-at days. Barely five weeks ago, in a survey taken in the first three days of January, Gary Hart had the support of 34 percent of several hundred Democrats polled (with Paul Simon at 16 percent, Richard Gephardt at 15 percent, and Michael Dukakis at 13 percent). Since then, belief in his candidacy among Democrats has fallen by more than half in practically any poll in the country you can find, and everything about him now suggests that this is someone who peaked at the very moment he reemerged. There are grim ironies in all our lives, but that is a rich one.

Yesterday, in The Des Moines Register's final Iowa Poll before tonight's caucuses, Hart was at 7 percent, one up from the bottom rung. Gephardt, whom most of the country had never heard of four years ago, even one year ago, was the leader at 25 percent.

"Now I will know, otherwise I would never have known. It's that simple," Gary Hart told Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes" just before Christmas. "Uh, how would you like to go for the rest of your life not knowing a major, having a major unanswered question? This way, I'll have it answered."

What follows here is not the result of an hour-long interview with the candidate (he declined a one-on-one talk for any length of time, his campaign manager citing time constraints), but rather some observed moments during a three-and-a-half-day watch in two parts of the country last week. Call it the Last Campaign Song, and let it glow a little, with some love and squalor in it. Because if this two-time presidential candidate now seems finished, all of his own doing, he is also a man still out there trying hard against the wind, and there is some redemption in that. Let this be said too: Gary Hart still knows how to inspire, how to roil your emotions, how to stimulate and engage you intellectually. His family is out there with him trying awfully hard right now, too. You see the rub of friction in it, and you see a lot of caring in it.

And are there no second acts in American lives? And remember Richard Nixon? And who can really say what is about to happen to Gary Hart?

A Mercury Grand Marquis, license No. D.C. 269-231, has just slid through snow and some oppressive 4 o'clock Midwestern light into Northpark Shopping Center in Davenport. It's a seven-car convoy, counting Secret Service and local squad cars and a couple of hotly pursuing reporters in rental vans and cars. Gary Hart has no press buses, no provisions whatever for the media, and you get the distinct feeling this is one of the things about this current incarnation of his campaign that makes him happiest. You want to track this candidate, you get your own vehicle and you chase.

Gary Hart hates lights and sirens; he's always trying to make his local police escorts cut their flashers off on the edge of town. This is another appealing thing about him -- the genuine shyness and modesty, mixed right in with all the ego and arrogance.

On the way over from Iowa City just now, across the bullet-gray Cedar River, past exit signs for Plain View and Moscow, the Hart convoy had hit 75 -- the hammers down. (Maximum speed limit is 65 in Iowa. But of course this transgression of the law wasn't the candidate's doing -- it was the state police car leading the pack.)

The turnout in Iowa City, at the University of Iowa, had been quite good, maybe 700 students and faculty -- and this despite the fact that word had only come the night before via some pasted-up signs and an ad in the university newspaper. At one point in his talk, the candidate had said, "Now the pundits outside this door tell me that other pundits in Des Moines are saying that Gary Hart's not going to be a factor in Iowa. Well, maybe so, maybe not." The last four words seemed to have anger and wistfulness and a who-the-hell-cares quality about them. He had also talked of "that troublesome word that a lot of people have kicked around, but nobody's defined -- character." Someone from the floor had wanted to know about his decision to get back in, and he had answered that it had come in one weekend -- "December 11th and 12th, and my wife Lee will vouch for this, not six other people knew about it." They discussed it and then they flew up to Concord, N.H., and announced. Wing it as you go.

But mostly he had talked issues, whether the audience had wanted to hear them or not: substantive, clear thinking on the budget deficit, on education, on military hardware. He didn't talk down, he talked up, and he even used chalk and a rollaway blackboard, his coat off, the sleeves of his blue shirt shoved up. He held up his no-frills, one-color, 94-page "blueprint" for America, titled "Reform, Hope, and the Human Factor: Ideas for National Restructuring." It is no-frills, all right. It looks like it was printed in the Soviet Union.

But now the motley campaign has hit Northpark Mall. Hart is out of the car, leading his wife, leading his daughter, coatless, hatless, a` la JFK, hands jammed deep in his gray cowboy-cut slacks. (They have little tabs on the belt loops and are flared at the bottom, so he can get his boots on. The initials on his belt buckle are a shiny GWH.) Everybody else in sight is dressed for the Yukon.

Let's see if we can make this work, gang, seems to be the expression on his face as he lights out for the first concourse.

"I have a daughter who's studying Russian," a man says to Andrea, ignoring the candidate.

"Terrific," says Andrea. "Would you like to meet Dad?"

"All A's, all A's in school?" the candidate asks a kid who's come up with a glossy photo to be autographed. (He gets constant requests for his autograph. Collectors' items? There's no missing the genuine celebrity status Hart holds -- and seems genuinely to dislike.)

Now he is looking in the window of an optical shop, just sort of peering in big-eyed at all the glittery glass, the way somebody from Ottawa, Kan., 40 years ago might have peered in at a big-city store window.

"Mr. Hart, what are you going to do about jobs?" a man in a maroon jacket asks. "Over Caterpillar, you know, the tractor plant, they're closing down."

"How many work there?"

"Had 3,000 once."

He shakes his head. "I'll do what I can if I get in."

He's stopped in front of Heroes Outlet. Could it be the name, suspending him here? Lee, in a calf-length pleated red dress, urges him along: sudden role reversal, in that she is usually the lagger, the gabber.

"Hi. Congratulations. I mean, welcome to the Quad Cities," says a batty woman, all out of breath. "So happy to see you, Gary. And Lee! Congratulations!"

(On what?)

"Uh, thanks, we need your help," Lee says, moving off.

"Right," says Gary.

Kriss Whalberg comes up. She's 24 and a knockout. Lots of makeup. Manages the Varsity Store here in the mall. (Women's sport clothes.) Her girlfriend is here too, and the girlfriend has the Instamatic at the ready, and the idea is to get a close-in pic of Gary and Kriss. Kriss is moving in for the pic, squirming it, giggling it.

Holy cow, this could be disastrous all over again: Bombshell and the Candidate in Davenport. But, look, it's innocent as pie. A picture gets taken, with the candidate trying to put as much air as is humanly possible between himself and the vivacious Kriss Whalberg. The shutter snaps. Hart vamooses.

Kriss Whalberg says, "Yeah, I think he's got a lot of guts for coming back, that's for sure. Vote for him? Well, I'll have to see how it goes. Caucuses? Well, um, you see, actually, I've been brought up Republican. You got me, I just wanted the picture."

It goes like this another 20 minutes: Lots of handshakes, how many real voters? Then back into the cars. Then over to McButt's, Davenport's greatest Irish bar. The convoy is actually ahead of schedule now, too far ahead, in fact, in that the McButt's after-work crowd is just drifting in. The place is about half full, and some of the patrons aren't even looking up from their stout and lager.

"Would you like to sit down, Dad?" Andrea Hart says, taking charge, leading him through the place. He seems uncomfortable, not sure what he should do next.

"So, uh, you have pool here, I see," Lee says to the owner, looking around. His name is Dennis Sanford and he's a registered Republican, but he likes Hart anyway.

"What is it, what is it?" a female drinker on a stool says to Andrea.

"Senator Hart's just coming in," says Andrea. The patron doesn't know who Andrea is, and Andrea isn't signaling.

"From what I understand it's usually packed about 6, right?" Lee says to Sanford with great hope in her voice.

"Gary, where do your ancestors come from in Ireland?" a man wants to know.

"Sligo," he says, taking a big draught from his bottle of Harp.

"Don't worry, they said Doug Williams couldn't do it neither," says a client feeling no pain and listing three degrees to starboard. The Secret Service steps in so the fellow can't get closer. His breath is like a brewery.

A game of eight ball ensues, Hart against the owner. Hart breaks. Nothing goes in: Typical of his luck these days.

When the game is finished (the candidate has won, but on a technicality: Sanford has scratched), Channel 6 squeezes in for a live remote. The bar grows quiet as death. Everyone in the place is simultaneously trying to watch Gary Hart in person and Gary Hart on the tube, which is about eight feet above the candidate's head. This scene is right out of Marshall McLuhan.

"Polls jump all over the place," Hart says to the interviewer, and you can hear the words in two places: down below and up top. "As I've said before, I was 2 percent nationally when I defeated Vice President Mondale in New Hampshire."

On the way out of McButt's, Lee stops to shoot a few baskets with a silver basketball. (The hoop is hung at the ceiling, and whether the ball goes through the rim or not, it returns to the shooter via an alley and a slide net.) Lee gives it three or four shots. She sinks one, grins, shrugs, moves outside into the slushy dark. Her husband, following her out, decides he'll try his hand. He gets off an overhand set shot. Nope. Tries again. Nope. Another. Nope. He seems lost, he seems almost unaware of anything else around him. He is bent on getting this thing mastered. Finally he swishes one. Big cheers all around. But he doesn't leave, he shoots again. He is determined to bring this damn basketball hoop to its knees. He's awkward, as he was with the pool cue, but he also seems ruthless about what he desires just now.

Yes, the rage in him. Yes, the presumptuousness. Yes, the air of superiority and I-know-better. Yes, the apparent blindness to his egregious errors. ("Human-scale mistakes and routine flaws," he says at one stop, in the midst of an attack on the press.) But yes, surprisingly yes, on other things, too. Like idealism. Like genuine modesty. Like off-the-cuff wit. Like willingness to poke fun at himself. Is it all cynical and calculating? It doesn't seem so. Indeed what a reporter, trying to watch from four or five feet away, is most struck by in Gary Hart these days is the welter of contradictions in him: intellect vs. the flesh, humility vs. the vanity of human wishes.

And beyond this, there seems something much looser, more relaxed, more likable, about Hart right now, and others have begun to notice it, too. What would explain this? That he is liberated by the approaching moment of his defeat? Teddy Kennedy was said to be this way in 1984. Well, maybe and maybe not. Sue Casey, Hart's campaign manager, thinks that's psycho-babble. There also seems something almost existential about the Hart campaign, as if this were a man using politics as a form of therapy. What you hear is the wishful thinking and the hard statement and the stab at apology.

"There are about 10 copies around in America today," he says, talking about a book he wrote on defense and the Pentagon.

"I'm not good with ages, in case you've heard," he says.

"Didn't this used to be called Saint Ambrose College?" he says. "So when did the name change to Saint Ambrose University? Well, that's all right. We're comfortable with people who change their names."

"What am I trying to say?" he says, palms upward. "I don't pretend to be an expert, many of you here know a lot more about this than I do."

"If I've got the facts straight on this ..." he says.

"A guy the other day said to his 4-year-old son, 'I'm going to help Gary Hart.' And the kid said, 'Why?' That's a good question: Why am I running for president? All I can tell you is I'll try, I'll do my best."

"I'm so tired, the words aren't coming," he says.

"Let's make it very informal, you don't have to raise your hand or anything," he says.

"Why do parents beat their children?" he says. "Because they were beat?"

"Let me tell you something," he says. "I don't want to be president, I don't want to be president, if I don't have a mandate. It's hard enough to try to govern this country. Without a mandate you'll have chaos and destruction in there. I've got bills, I've got bills ready to go. I'm campaigning on them, and I'm going to send them to Congress in my first 90 days as president."

"What I would do about the homeless is this," he says. "I would call every governor, every mayor of every state and every city in the country and demand that they identify a usable building in the next 96 hours. We've got to get money away from MX missiles and B1 bombers and get it to things like this. It just takes an act of national will and leadership. This president is not about to do it. I will do it when I get in the White House."

What Gary Hart seems right now is attractive, sincere, informed, sensitive, concerned, engaging, attuned, incisive, curious -- and doomed.

Larry Peterson, investigative reporter for The Register of Orange County, Calif., has the candidate cornered. Hart has just given a speech and seems aglow. For several weeks The Register and other papers have been hot after the story of financial improprieties and alleged illegalities in the Hart campaign of '84, most of them involving a Newport Beach videocassette millionaire named Stuart Karl. There have been stories about laundering of funds, about collecting checks and turning them into cash, about all sorts of unattractive things.

Now Larry Peterson wants to know if it is true that -- three days after he reentered the race -- Hart held a conference call with Karl and Douglas Rosen, the campaign's finance director, and some other backers to discuss ways of getting money quickly.

"Mr. Hart, did you have a conference call with Douglas Rosen and Stuart Karl just after you got back in?"

Hart's body jerks back as if he's been struck by a rattler. No, no. His head is shaking. He is trying to back up but there is a crowd around him.

"No such conversation ever took place, sir?"

"No!" Hart says, his grin mirthless.

They have the same chin, the same eyes, the same elegant slender fingers. Her honey hair is braided in the back; in the front, strands of it keep falling down into her eyes, and then she pushes them back. There are tasteful gold rings in her ears. She wears a big black overcoat and stuffs her pants down into her ankle-high boots. At times you notice a small droop to her mouth that seems something more than just a physical weariness. She wears a nifty tan watchband. She can come alive in an instant. Sometimes she signals her dad from the back: Cut it. She can kiss owners of cafe's, she can hug fat old farm women she will never see again. She is always lugging an armful of papers and binders and schedules. She professes that this has been a truly great experience.

And Andrea Hart says, with a perfect, winning sincerity: "It would be real hard after this to find somebody who could come up to Dad's -- what? -- well, his honesty, his intelligence, his courage, his strength."