A Jan. 22 article incompletely described the sponsors of two reports on Homeland Security prepared by task forces whose chairman was former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. The first report was chartered by the Defense Department. The second report this past fall was sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. (Published 1/23/03)

Gary Hart, a once and possible future Democratic candidate for president, surveys the post-terrorist attack nation and sees unaddressed menace.

U.S. ports unload 20,000 uninspected cargo containers every day. Power lines are unguarded. Local public health systems are an underfunded disaster. Overseas, 14 of the 18 top al Qaeda leaders still are at large. And President Bush talks war while Congress pares billions of dollars from domestic defense.

"If I were in Bush's shoes, I'd be scared to death," Hart said. "When the next attack occurs, he will be judged very, very harshly."

The former Colorado senator, who chairs the Council on Foreign Relations' task force on national security, views another attack as a certainty. And he plans to make that stern message the centerpiece of a possible new run for the presidency.

Hart gave the first of four speeches tonight -- this one on national security -- that are intended to take the temperature of the 2004 presidential waters. His upcoming speeches will touch on the economy and foreign policy and civic engagement, but national security is the thread that binds the rest. After a fall campaign in which Bush lashed the Democrats as weak on defense, Hart believes he would bring a formidable and missing expertise to the Democratic field.

Hart's commission, which included Republican former secretary of state George P. Shultz and FBI director William H. Webster, released a report that predicted the likelihood of catastrophic terrorism nine months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The commission released another report last fall, warning that the United States "remains dangerously unprepared" and that the next attack will "result in even greater casualties and widespread disruption to American lives."

The commission pointedly declined to use the conditional tense in talking about the "next" attack.

"All this huffing and puffing about Bush being a strong leader is just ridiculous," Hart said in an interview today at the Manhattan offices of his Denver-based law firm. "He's fixated on cutting taxes and just hoping that we don't get attacked again, and that's not leadership. We need to talk about a nation that's dangerously vulnerable."

It seems an unlikely encore for Hart, 66, whose mop of dark hair has turned white since his last White House campaign ended in a whimper in 1988. After so many years, he is aware that he might be seen as a Nickelodeon channel candidate, a side-burned image from another era. The one-time candidate of the future last won a primary (25 of them, actually) in 1984.

He is a successful lawyer in Denver, an author of seven books on foreign policy and U.S. citizenship, a man who recently earned his doctorate in politics from Oxford. Why take on the back-breaking and money-grubbing exercise of a presidential run?

He smiles. "You sound like my wife. Those are the questions I ask myself. Maybe I'm the oldest idealist in America."

Political consultants tend to see Hart's odds as long, but not insanely so. His 1988 candidacy, in which he entered as a favorite, sank because of reports of marital infidelities. During his 1988 campaign, a photograph surfaced showing a young blonde, Donna Rice, sitting on his knee aboard a yacht named "Monkey Business."

But in this post-Clinton age, they say, voters might see those problems as ancient history.

"It wouldn't be the first time that someone came back from oblivion," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic political consultant. "If he can get the money -- and that's a big if -- he could at the very least play the role of a Bruce Babbitt, who raised important issues that the other candidates had to address. Maybe Hart could bring the party back to its moorings on homeland defense issues."

Hart speaks of trying to ignite a new conversation with the American people. He wants to divine whether his long-ago brand of low-budget insurgent campaigning, heavily dependent on volunteers fired by idealism, can resonate today, when even $100 million is little more than national campaign tinder. He draws inspiration from the John McCains and Bill Bradleys of the political world, although he acknowledges that neither man came close to achieving his goal of a major party nomination.

"Insurgency politics is the hardest kind, and that hasn't changed," said Hart, who plans to decide by March whether he will run. "I have an odd appeal to young people, though, and that helps get you troops."

Now Hart sees a nation about to go to war with the wrong enemy. He favors tough inspections but opposes invading Iraq. It will, he said, ratchet up our risk while doing nothing to destroy al Qaeda, whose fires draw on a far deeper hatred of America. "The idea that a war on Iraq will increase our national security is crazy . . . absolutely crazy," he said. "The minute the first soldier crosses the border, our danger of a terror attack skyrockets."

The temptation is to consider Hart the Cassandra candidate. He disputes that.

"The message since the age of Reagan has been 'You're on your own,' " he said. "The bad news now is there are people out there who hate us. The good news is this could tie us together and make us a stronger country.

"I've always been underrated. And I live in hope."

Ex-senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.): "Maybe I'm the oldest idealist in America."