Even in the era of the perpetual presidential campaign, 34 months before election is too early for a formal announcement of candidacy. But it is not too soon to bow out of an intervening race that would at best be a distraction and at worst a danger. So Gary Hart, 49, widely regarded as the early front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination--at least since the withdrawal last month of Ted Kennedy--took that inevitable first step. On Saturday he announced that he will not run to retain his U.S. Senate seat from Colorado in 1986.
It was a fairly splashy declaration of noncandidacy. For two days before the event, Hart welcomed reporters to his newly acquired 150-acre mountain retreat on Troublesome Gulch Road, an unpaved trail half an hour west of Denver. Sprawled in an easy chair beside a crackling fire in the parlor of what was once a log cabin (it has been embellished by stone additions), Hart discoursed to TIME on the national campaign he was not exactly starting yet, while his wife Lee served coffee and cookies to TV crews in the kitchen. To some 250 supporters gathered at the nearby El Rancho Restaurant on Saturday, he said of his retirement from the Senate, "It is time for me to express my commitment to our state and to our nation in other ways, and perhaps on a farther horizon." That did not mean, he stressed, that he is an official candidate for the White House. But "does it mean I still have an interest in being President? Yup."
The statement was reasonably candid, but not completely so. Hart, one of those rare politicians who seem to be more powerful nationally than in their home state, did not acknowledge that he might have lost a bid for a third Senate term. Colorado has turned more conservative since Hart squeaked through to a Senate re-election in 1980 with just 50% of the vote. Polls have given him only a shaky lead over Congressman Ken Kramer, a likely Republican senatorial candidate. Even a victorious Senate run would be a financial drain on Hart, who still has to pay off $3.5 million in debts from his 1984 White House drive.
Nationally, with Kennedy out, Hart is by far the best known of the potential Democratic presidential candidates, and the only one who has already fought a coast-to-coast campaign. That drive left him with supporters in every state, whom he can begin early to shape into the kind of national organization he had to jerry-build from scratch in 1984. But Hart is also the only candidate bearing scars from the last race. Organized labor, a powerful force in the party, has not forgiven his attacks on "special interests" backing his ultimately successful rival for the presidential nomination, Walter Mondale. In addition, he struck many voters as a paradoxical combination of cold, aloof technocrat and movie star manqué who let his unexpected victories in early primaries go to his head.