GARY HART says he did not reenter the presidential race just to get hold of the $1 million or so of federal matching funds his 1988 campaign may be entitled to. But yesterday he took the first step to get hold of that money. Last May the Federal Election Commission refused to certify that Mr. Hart had raised enough money to qualify for matching funds, because he didn't submit the request until May 18, after he quit being a candidate. Yesterday afternoon Mr. Hart resubmitted the request. There seems little doubt that the commission will find that he raised at least $5,000 in each of 20 states. Once it does, Mr. Hart will be free to apply for matching funds. He has raised some $2.2 million, probably about half of that in contributions under $250, which qualify for matching funds: that means his 1988 campaign will get something between $900,000 and $1.2 million.
The interesting question is: Who gets that cool million? Mr. Hart, for all his talk of running a one-man, grass-roots campaign, surely has some idea of how to spend it this year. But his 1984 campaign still owes its creditors $1.1 million, and you can bet that many of those creditors would like to get their money back. Back in April, in the Hart campaign's earlier incarnation, marshals seized $29,500 of the proceeds of a Hollywood fund-raiser set up by Warren Beatty to pay a debt owed to a Culver City, Calif., media firm. A federal judge ruled that the 1988 Hart funds could not be used to pay off 1984 Hart debts. But it's possible that Mr. Hart may find himself beset not by the reporters he criticizes but by process servers.
Last June the Hart campaign asked the FEC for an advisory opinion allowing it to use 1988 contributions to pay off 1984 debts. Mr. Hart's statement on "60 Minutes" that the commission has ruled he can't do this is not quite right: the commission ruled that the question was mooted because it had ruled that the 1988 Hart campaign was ineligible for matching funds, and the Hart campaign withdrew the request for the opinion last October. Now that Mr. Hart is seeking matching funds again, he should again ask the FEC for an opinion authorizing him to use them to pay off 1984 debts. We think there's a strong argument that the funds can be used this way, just as candidates have been permitted to use 1986 Senate campaign funds to pay 1984 presidential debts. Any other course would be an evasion of the commitment Mr. Hart has made over and over to pay off his 1984 debt.