DENVER, DEC. 29 -- The good news for Gary Hart is that he's leading the polls in Iowa.
The bad news for Gary Hart is that he's leading the polls in Iowa.
Within days after Hart reentered the 1988 presidential sweepstakes, opinion polls taken by the Des Moines Register and by a group of broadcast outlets both showed him leading the other six Democratic contenders among likely caucus-goers in Iowa.
Those results were welcome news for Hart because they suggest that while party leaders and political insiders may despise him, many ordinary Democrats see Hart as a viable presidential contender. But the two Iowa polls have also brought Hart and his tinker-toy campaign organization face-to-face with a decision they are not ready to make: Should he make a concerted effort to win in Iowa?
Hart has been advised that his wisest course would be to punt in Iowa, campaigning briefly or not at all there while he focuses on New Hampshire and South Dakota. Hart won both of those states in 1984, and their primaries come one and two weeks, respectively, after the Iowa caucuses.
Last week, Hart dispatched Denver political consultant Will Dupree to Iowa for what Dupree calls "a reconnaissance mission." Dupree reported back that the organizational task Hart would face in turning out voters for the caucuses might overwhelm the bare-bones campaign he has patched together.
Democratic hopeful Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) has adopted the "Iowa-bypass" strategy. But Gore has never scored well in opinion polls in Iowa and thus has no expectations to live up to there.
"He's leading in the polls right now, and that could come back to hurt him if he doesn't make a showing here," Iowa Democratic Party spokesman Phil Roeder said of Hart. "He's playing the expectations game just like everybody else. He's trying to downplay expectations . . . but how do you do that when you're leading the polls?"
Hart's advisers generally seem to favor bypassing Iowa. Their thesis is that any caucus state requires a level of organization and spending that just doesn't fit the new Hart campaign.
But the candidate has indicated a desire to get to Iowa and try to reach the caucus-goers. So far, Mother Nature has blocked Hart's plans. He originally intended to announce his resuscitated campaign in Iowa, but a major snowstorm forced him to change his plans. This week, Hart again scheduled an Iowa swing; another blizzard forced another cancellation.
Next week, Hart plans to travel to Washington, to meet with policy advisers and appear on the Larry King television show. Then he will spend three days campaigning in New Hampshire. "This is amazing," campaign manager Sue Casey said as she recited this schedule. "A whole week ahead and I know where we're going to be."
While Hart has begun to put together volunteer field organizations in New Hampshire, South Dakota and some other states, he has virtually no presence in Iowa. "Our organization?" laughs Tom Hanson, a Des Moines lawyer who is backing Hart. "Well, 'fledgling' would be a charitable word to describe it."
But Casey said Hart has received "a flood" of calls and letters from former backers in Iowa who say they are eager to get to work again. And Hart has fond memories of Iowa; he has said that his second-place finish there in 1984 "really launched" his subsequent victories in New Hampshire and later primaries.
One test of the Hart campaign's Iowa intentions might be a Democratic candidates' debate in Sioux City scheduled for Jan. 11. Hart has announced he will take part in a Jan. 15 debate in Des Moines that is sure to draw national attention, but he has not decided whether to show up for the locally oriented Sioux City event.
Hart's campaign aides say the candidate is about to send the first direct-mail solicitation of his revived campaign. The mailing will reportedly go to 18,000 people, heavily weighted toward Colorado and California, who have proven regular Hart contributors in the past.