The general counsel's office of the Federal Election Commission yesterday recommended rejection of Gary Hart's request for up to $940,000 in federal matching funds for his aborted presidential campaign.

The recommendation, which is scheduled to be voted on Thursday by the FEC, is a major blow to former senator Hart (D-Colo.), who has been struggling to find ways to pay off obligations from 1984 and 1988 totaling $1.6 million.

"We are disappointed," Donald J. Simon, a Hart lawyer, said. "If the commission makes an initial determination not to find us eligible, we'd certainly appeal."

The six-member commission is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. In order to overturn the general counsel's recommendation, Hart faces the tough hurdle of getting four votes in his favor, according to FEC rules.

In a six-page memorandum, acting general counsel Lawrence M. Noble said he "believes Gary Hart was not a candidate . . . when he submitted his threshold request for an eligibility determination. Given this central fact, the office of general counsel believes he may not now be determined eligible to receive matching payments."

Hart withdrew from the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination on May 8 amid controversy over his relationships with women other than his wife. On May 18 he submitted a request to the FEC for federal matching funds.

Hart's lawyers made three arguments in favor of granting eligibility: "There is no requirement in the law that the candidate be active {at the time of commission review}; prior to his withdrawal, Hart had met "all of the requisites of a candidacy," and the law allows eligibility to continue "even after {a candidate} ceases active candidacy."

The general counsel's office dismissed these arguments, saying that the law makes "it clear that only an individual who at a minimum is a candidate when the submission is made may establish threshold eligibility to receive matching payments."

A candidate must receive $5,000 in each of 20 states in individual contributions of $250 or less to qualify for federal matching funds. Qualified presidential candidates then receive matching funds for donations of $250 or less from individuals.

Hart, according to aides, had raised enough money to qualify for about $940,000 in matching money before his withdrawal -- if Hart wins approval of a separate request to make his 1988 committee responsible for his 1984 debts.

FEC regulations permit paying a losing candidate an amount equal to the net debts owed by the campaign. The 1988 campaign is $313,000 in debt. If the 1984 debts are added, the campaign will be $1.6 million in the red.