I arrived in New Hampshire on Sunday night before the Democratic primary of 1984, having just covered the Iowa caucuses the previous week. In Iowa, former vice president Walter Mondale had won, but US Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, considered a bit of an upstart candidate with little national reputation, had emerged from the pack to register a respectable second-place showing with 16.5 percent.
Now, in the Wayfarer Inn bar, everyone was talking about the tracking polls, which showed Hart pulling ahead of Mondale decisively. I had decided to travel with Hart in the week or so after New Hampshire and asked press secretary Kathy Bushkin (now Kathy Calvin) if I could join the Hart plane. She said there was no Hart plane — not enough money for that. But she told me which commercial flight to catch from Logan, and I made reservations. Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary results reflected the polls: Hart with 37 percent; Mondale with 28 percent.
The result was electric. On Hart’s trip from New Hampshire to Denver on the Wednesday after the primary, there was a stopover at O’Hare, with an airport news conference. The room was overflowing with people and political energy; TV cameramen caught outside the room were swearing up a blue streak.
The next morning in Denver, there was a shiny big charter plane for the campaign and press. Travelling around with Hart the next few days, I saw crowds that were huge, boisterous, and enthusiastic. From that point on, it was a two-man race, and Hart, with his big New Hampshire boost and subsequent wins in Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts, looked well positioned to capture the nomination.
On the Hart plane in the days leading to the southern Super Tuesday, I asked the candidate: “So what’s going to happen now?’’ His answer, with a smile: “What’s going to happen is I’m going to win this thing.’’ In the end, Mondale barely edged out the upstart on Super Tuesday, then cadged successive victories in Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Hart could never catch up after that, but some big Midwestern wins kept him alive through the primary. On the last Tuesday, Hart won big in California but lost New Jersey. That sealed his fate.
When he ran again four years later, Hart’s bid ended before the primary season even began — the result of a sexual liaison aboard a cabin cruiser called “Monkey Business.’’ It turned out to be a milestone in political news coverage, which before that 1987 Hart episode had steered clear of personal matters considered unrelated to a candidate’s professional capabilities.
But his unexpected sprint in New Hampshire in 1984 catapulted him from a mid-pack also-ran into a serious presidential contender — further testament to the force and leverage of the New Hampshire primary.
Robert W. Merry, journalist, publishing executive, and author of books on American history, spent 12 years as a political writer for The Wall Street Journal and 22 years as an executive at Congressional Quarterly, including a dozen years as chief executive.