Ava Nell Specks has been following presidential politics for about 50 years, but nobody ever asked for her views until three weeks ago, when a national opinion survey called her at home in Leitchfield, Ky., to find out who she is backing in this year's election.

"I told them I'm for Gary Hart," the talkative, friendly grandmother related the other day. "I have admired that man. I like his ideas, what he's saying. I just think . . . he's smart, he would make a good president, he deserves a chance."

And as Ava Specks goes, opinion polls and in-depth interviews suggest, so goes about a quarter of the Democratic Party around the country.

While establishment politicians and political analysts have reached a consensus that Hart's reborn presidential campaign is a loser, the polls reveal that a lot of Democrats still like what he has to say -- Donna Rice or no Donna Rice.

In short, the people who have given Hart first place in many local and national surveys seem to be saying that issues matter more than indiscretions.

These polls suggest that Hart has two assets more precious than gold for any political campaign: a coherent message and a broad national base of people who respond to it favorably. Those assets, in turn, have led some political analysts inside and outside Hart's camp to conclude that the reborn Hart campaign might even turn into a winner if a few cards fall right.

"There's a reason Hart emerged from the pack {in 1984}," said a senior Washington tactician now aligned with another Democratic hopeful. "He has something to say to people, and a lot of them like it enough to go along with him."

The negatives resulting from last year's personal and political disasters have made Hart the target of denunciation and ridicule from columnists, cartoonists and party professionals around the country. He has been compared to everybody from Harold Stassen to Don Giovanni.

But some political insiders propose another comparison -- an analogy to another well-known candidate who was largely written off by the political establishment despite strong showings in the opinion polls.

"Can a man with negatives of huge proportions turn them around?" asked Carl Wagner, a veteran Democratic campaigner who once worked for Hart and for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "Can a guy who is completely rejected by the establishment of his party win? Can a guy who everybody in the other party would love to run against win the nomination?

"Yes, he can. His name is Ronald Reagan, and he did it in 1980 even though he had negatives in January that were pretty close to what Hart has now. He won because he had an agenda people could buy."

One problem with this theory may be that Hart's negatives are different from the problems Reagan had to overcome. Reagan in 1980 never admitted he was too old or too conservative to be elected. Hart, in contrast, has conceded publicly that he is guilty of some of the moral and judgmental failings that have given him high negative ratings in opinion surveys. And it may be that American voters will never forgive Hart for the events of last spring.

But Wagner says the Democratic race is still too "wide open" to predict a victory for Hart or anyone else.

Like Wagner, Hart's campaign aides frequently cite the Reagan analogy. They say Reagan's 1980 experience demonstrates that winning a primary can cure almost any ill in American politics.

Hart's strategy centers on a strong showing or outright victory in one of the four early Democratic contests -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Dakota or Wyoming -- three of which he won in 1984. "Gary's theory is that if we can win something," said a close friend of Hart who is working on the campaign, "then the personal stuff might be over and he can win it on the issues."

Hart is still talking about a "light infantry" campaign with no staff or headquarters and just enough money to let the candidate take his thoughts to the voters. In fact, his campaign has already grown to the size of a small platoon -- a press secretary, a two-person field staff and a Washington coordinator signed on last week.

The campaign has so far met every state deadline for ballot and delegate filings. The field staff has rounded up hundreds of volunteers in key primary states. Hart has won victories in the federal courts and the Federal Election Commission that should provide him with about $1 million in spending money this month. Aides report a decent but not overwhelming response to the new campaign's first fund-raising appeal.

But Hart will probably never catch up with his Democratic rivals in these organizational areas. Instead, he will rely on his stand on issues -- or at least, the voters' sense that he has a firm stand on the issues -- which seems to be the factor that has won him the lead in many polls.

That judgment emerges from a series of interviews with registered voters around the country who told The Washington Post-ABC News poll last month that they support Hart for president.

Hart led the Democrats in that poll with support from 30 percent of the respondents. After the poll was taken, Washington Post reporters contacted many of the people who said they supported Hart and interviewed them in depth last week. They were promised the same anonymity they were given in responding to the original poll, but some, like Ava Nell Specks, asked to be quoted by name.

Most of the people backing Hart today said they like him primarily because he articulates substantive positions they agree with.

"I was never involved in politics before he got in {in 1984}," explained a 41-year-old woman in Westminster, Colo. "It is his ideals. They sound new and different. I'm concerned about the environment and women's issues, the things that have just gone to hell under Reagan. And Gary Hart is very impressive on those issues."

A common thread among those interviewed was that they expressed admiration for Hart's "new ideas" -- even though these voters often couldn't say specifically what those ideas are. For many Hart supporters, the operative word in his trademark phrase is not "ideas," but "new."

"He's young at heart . . . young in his views," said a 37-year-old Republican from Arlington, Va. "He reminds me of Kennedy in his attitude toward things."

"Somebody's got to get in there and shake up things," echoed a 40-year-old woman in Sacramento. "I like his campaign ideas, and I think he's got the guts and fortitude to do something about them when he's running the country."

This appreciation for "new ideas" may explain why the character issue that abruptly ended Hart's first 1988 campaign doesn't seriously bother his current supporters. For these people, it was policy, not character, that made Hart attractive in the first place. Hardly any of those interviewed said they chose Hart because of warmth, charm or personal attributes.

Still, some people who tell pollsters they like Hart seem to be responding to his "send-them-a-message" appeal -- the idea that the press and the political power brokers are ganging up to keep Gary Hart out of the White House. Hart's suggestion that he is a victim seems to go over particularly well with people under 30.

"I give him credit for guts," said a 27-year-old woman in northern California. "I thought they invaded his privacy, and I respect him for coming back and sticking up for himself. More power to him."

California-based political analyst Bill Bradley said this antiestablishment strain among Hart's supporters is particularly strong in the West.

"Hart and Reagan differ on most policies, but both stand for the proposition . . . that eastern domination of the national agenda must come to an end," Bradley said.

Finally, there are some Hart backers who sharply disapprove of the candidate's personal mistakes but have accepted Hart's contention that issues are more important. "Suppose this was your dentist who did what {Hart} did," said Vito Sinopoli of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. "You'd still go to the guy if he did a good job on your teeth."

"Hart's no hero," agreed a 41-year-old man from suburban Detroit. "But you're talking about power, and this guy would use {the presidency} to help the little man. So that means the business with the woman isn't so important. So when they called me for the poll, I told them right off: 'Put me down for Gary Hart.' "

Staff researcher Susan Kelleher contributed to this report.