"{He} had no campaign staff, no national organization, no delegates, almost no promises of support. We had all expected a bad reaction. For a moment, it was even worse than we had anticipated. . . . He had gone ahead that Saturday meeting, surrounded by advisers exuding gloom. He had thereafter been savagely attacked, in many cases by people he respected and liked."

You no doubt recognize the late, ridiculed entry into the 1968 presidential race of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, as described by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in "Robert Kennedy and His Times."

No, (reckless) Gary Hart isn't (ruthless) Robert Kennedy, but neither is he Jason of "Friday the 13th," which seems to be the way leading Democrats and journalists unanimously regard him. So far Hart is batting about 0 for 12 in Washington Post columns and letters; 0 for 15 in predictions on "The McLaughlin Group"; 0 for 2 in scathing Time and Newsweek pieces. Gail Sheehy, our self-elected national psychiatrist, actually writes in a widely quoted piece that Hart is dangerous because as a child he didn't take toys out of his toy box. He doesn't need a media adviser, says one typical Democratic consultant, but a therapist.

Can I suggest that everyone in Washington take a deep breath and then point them guns a little lower? (For the record, I was a speech writer for Hart in '84 and am neutral in the '88 race.)

True, Hart has certainly offended his party and the press. Aloof, scowling and abrupt, he's no charmer. And his indefensible misconduct earlier this year revealed atrocious judgment. Hence, he's supposedly unelectable. Compared with whom? George Bush, the most likely Republican nominee? Yet if Hart is unelectable because he didn't tell the truth about his private indiscretions, could George Bush be unelectable because he lied about his "solid" support of trading arms for hostages? Would no one win a Hart-Bush contest? In my book of moral relativism, Bush's deception is far worse, except for the fact that he wasn't photographed in Reagan's lap when he sighed "yes."

Indeed, it's odd that some journalists who would disqualify Hart as untrustworthy barely mentioned hundreds of Ronald Reagan's documented deceptions over the past seven years (e.g., the pope didn't write him in support of the contras; the Strategic Defense Initiative is nuclear). What's the principle here -- that lying is unpresidential until you become one?

Which raises the issue of "character" generally. "Gaffegate" -- when public figures (Hart, Judge Ginsburg) are graded more by their private peccadilloes than their public conduct -- trivializes our politics and scares good people away from government service. So character must include marital fidelity -- and consistency, courage, hard work, imagination, sacrifice, loyalty and the willingness to take risks and stand up to fat cats.

We shouldn't judge friends or candidates by one at-bat but rather by a whole season of play. Without belaboring the point, there is much in Hart's 12 Senate seasons to demonstrate public character, from leading the struggle for military reform to refusing PAC money in his '84 and '88 races. If sexual propriety were the major barometer of "character," then a chaste Nixon would be regarded as a greater president than FDR. Should Hart's reentry do nothing other than help redefine the meaning of character in public life, he will have performed a valuable service.

Professional Democrats and journalists unanimously assume that Hart's reentry will ruin his party's chances for victory. Why? Because, it is said, the media will focus more on sensationalism than substance, thus making his candidacy a diverting sideshow. If true, this seems more a comment on the media than on Hart, who appears determined to talk about issues, not himself.

In any event, why obsess on the worst-case scenario? Each of the following is more likely to occur: Sen. Paul Simon beats Hart in Iowa and looks like a giant killer; Gov. Michael Dukakis beats Hart in New Hampshire and looks like a giant killer; Hart endures until the convention, making it more likely to be brokered and more likely to subpoena Gov. Mario Cuomo; or Hart actually wins the nomination despite his gross liabilities, thereby proving his mettle for the general election.

For now, Hart's prospects look unpromising. While his 30 percent support nationally among Democrats is not unimpressive (unlike, say, if Joseph Biden had reentered), the overwhelming consensus is that a candidate with a 40 percent unfavorable rating can't win. That's true. But will Hart's poll ratings today be the same as on Feb. 8 and 16, the dates of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary? If voters only view Hart through the lens of Donna Rice photographs, he's finished. But should Hart in fact show beef and class, as he promises, could he not shift his favorable-unfavorable ratings from 40-40 percent to 50-30 percent, which is where Bush is today? It's unlikely, but possible. Recall that while Hart was a lovely front-runner, he showed himself (in '72, '74 and '84) to be a resourceful underdog.

In sum, Hart attackers are giving added meaning to "piling on." As contrary voices, Al Gore Jr. and Mario Cuomo have got it right. By calmly welcoming Hart back, Gore was the only contender to exhibit presidential-level self-assurance. And Cuomo wisely points out that a) since Hart was first in and has been at it longest, surely he has as much a right to run as anyone; b) adultery is wrong but shouldn't be disqualifying; and c) party leaders who carefully avoid dismissing Jesse Jackson as unelectable should extend the same privilege to Hart.

Once offended commentators focus more on Hart's substance than his scandal, and once voters actually vote, we'll find out whether Hart will be history or whether he will make it. Having experienced in the same year both the worst week and nearly the best day in presidential campaigning history, he could emerge a bitter, marginal candidate . . . or a stronger, wiser one. The new Hart, if you will.

America isn't Iran. Here we don't stone sinners to death. We let the people decide in elections. Don't we?

The writer, who was the 1986 Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate from New York, is president of The Democracy Project, a public policy institute.