Fall from Grace

Seven days in May end with a front runner's implosion

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The Hart camp's occasionally inconsistent challenge of the Herald's story begins with the assertion that Rice returned to the candidate's town house for just 15 minutes late Friday night to retrieve an address book. In this version, Rice left through the alley exit to spend the night at Broadhurst's nearby home, where she shared a king-size bed with Armandt. Far more perplexing is Hart's unshakable insistence that the group entered and left through the front door of the town house on two separate occasions on Saturday afternoon. During that period the Herald had as many as four reporters and a photographer watching both exits. Hart and his friends contend that they spent much of Saturday afternoon driving around Alexandria, Va.

In hindsight it is hard to believe that a lustrous political career could hang on such prosaic details. Moreover, the Herald's stakeout would have been infinitely more difficult at a later stage in the campaign, when Hart would have warranted Secret Service protection. In short, for want of a lookout a presidential campaign was lost. It ultimately made little difference that Hart told Herald reporters Saturday night, "I have no personal relationship with the woman you are following."

Could Hart have survived the original story and the almost inevitable discovery of the details of the Bimini trip? Probably not. Hart's cool, cerebral style left him without the reservoir of intense supporters that has allowed other politicians to ride out more serious scandals. His towering strength in the polls was in part a reflection of his high name recognition and the weakness of his opposition. With no sizable assets of his own and still saddled with $1.3 million in debts from his 1984 race, Hart found raising money to be a chore even at the best of times. Moreover, from the beginning, many party leaders were looking for an excuse to block his maverick candidacy. As a key state chairman said late last week, "Hart always struck me as a time bomb. The name change, the age, the stories of womanizing -- who knows what might have been next? Thank God it came to a head now, instead of after he had the nomination."

But Hart had one asset that was never mobilized until it was too late: the spunky loyalty of his wife. Lee Hart was one of the first people the candidate phoned when he learned of the Herald story late Saturday night. Her friend Sally Henkel recalls that Lee's immediate reaction was "concern with the story and the journalistic ethics involved." According to another friend who was with her during the early days of the ordeal, she never expressed any anger or disappointment in her husband. Other visitors to the house on Troublesome Gulch Road expected her to behave like a woman scorned. But she never faltered in her insistence that she believed her husband "because he just can't lie."

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