LIKE OTHER candidates for president, Gary Hart earlier this year was raising sizable sums of money which he hoped would qualify for federal matching funds. Unfortunately for Mr. Hart -- or for his campaign's creditors -- he didn't submit the actual paper work to the Federal Elections Commission until May 18, 10 days after he announced at a press conference his withdrawal from the race. A 5-1 majority of the commission, following a staff recommendation, ruled that the 1988 Hart campaign wasn't eligible for matching funds because Mr. Hart was no longer a candidate when he submitted his application. The Hart campaign has 30 days to ask the commission to change its mind. It should.

There's an argument to be made for the FEC's decision; the words of the law can be read to justify their result. But they can also be read the other way. Mr. Hart was indubitably a candidate when the contributions were made. He was a candidate when he signed his certificate of candidacy May 4. If he had submitted his application that day to the FEC, it presumably would have approved the matching funds. But it took several days to prepare the lists of contributors from 20 states and the photocopies of their checks required by law.

We think the purposes of the law are best served by declaring the Hart campaign eligible for the $900,000 in matching funds he claims. The contributors gave money to a live candidate, funds that they and everyone else had good reason to believe would be matchable. The law was meant to promote lively political competition and to enable campaigns to get their messages across to the public; that purpose is not served if creditors and campaign employees are left holding the bag when the campaign ends suddenly for reasons no one anticipated. Any other decision leaves politicians like Mr. Hart with little choice but to maintain the fiction that they are still candidates until they can collect their matching funds. Mr. Hart's 1988 campaign, by seeking matching funds to which it is otherwise entitled and by asking the FEC to allow it to use funds it has raised to pay off the 1984 Hart campaign's $1.3 million in debts, has acted responsibly. The commission should respond in kind