CONCORD, N.H. — WINDING UP a luncheon meeting with two dozen Democrats here the other day, Jay Rockefeller was asked about the pervasive distrust of the political system among Americans today.
It was the kind of question most politicians hit right out of the park with heavy-breathing rhetoric about how the right party with the right candidate could inspire renewed trust. But the West Virginia Democrat never really answered at all. Instead, he wandered into some argument from left field about how more effort to force errant fathers to pay child support could ease the burden of welfare costs.
Nor was this the only occasion on which Rockefeller demonstrated here last weekend that he sometimes has a tendency to stray down some intellectual byway when engaged in political dialogue -- perhaps because he comes armed with a huge arsenal of facts and figures that he seems determined to use as often as possible.
It is the discovery of just such quirks that is at the heart of the "testing the waters" process in presidential politics. The candidates want to see how the political activists respond; the political community -- including both activists and press -- is trying to measure the candidate's potential. Jay Rockefeller wouldn't be where he is today if he couldn't hit the fast ball, but can he handle the curve ball?
Rockefeller, moreover, is getting closer scrutiny coming out of the gate than most potential candidates. On paper, he seems to have the credentials to be one of the heavy players in the contest for the Democratic nomination next year. His primary identity is with the health care issue that opinion polls show is a runaway national concern.
Moreover, the basic thrust of the argument Rockefeller is making against President Bush is the one political professionals are convinced is the most telling -- that Bush refuses to make any serious attempt to confront debilitating domestic problems.
Rockefeller is strong on the specifics. He commends Bush, for example, for proposals to limit the costs of medical malpractice insurance. But, he points out, that is "only one of about 130 things" that need to be done to confront the national crisis in health care.
Asked where he sees an opening against Bush, he replies: "People want to listen to people talking seriously about what's going on in this country, which is not much."
But the first question Democrats must answer is whether Jay Rockefeller is a candidate who can make the case effectively. And that is a question that cannot be answered until he has had far more exposure to the electorate than has been the case so far. Although he enjoys the instant celebrity that comes from being a Rockefeller, he has maintained a low profile in national politics in eight years as governor of West Virginia and seven in the Senate.
Meeting Democrats in a half-dozen gatherings here, Rockefeller seemed relaxed and comfortable. He is quick to translate snippets of information about his listeners into personal references that are enormously flattering. He makes disarmingly self-deprecatory jokes about his wealth and displays a disingenuous enthusiasm that seems almost boyish in a 53-year-old politician. He describes himself as one who "cares passionately" about child health care, who is "absolutely furious" about the lack of health insurance for so many Americans and "obsessed" by a whole series of issues.
But Rockefeller is also a politician who knows his material. When he talks about trade questions or the inadequacy of prenatal care or his proposals for a job-based system of universal health insurance, it is clear he is not just blowing smoke. He is, in short, someone talking seriously about public policy questions that are being ignored by the Bush administration.
The operative question, then, is whether he can convert his concern into a marketable political message. And that is one of the things the political community will discover over the next few weeks.
Rockefeller is obviously enjoying himself immensely. He has become, he says, "engrossed" in what he calls "the intricacy of the process" and the decisions that must be made before he is finally committed to run. "The whole thing is evolutionary," he says. "There isn't any magic moment."
Or, put another way, there is a lot of time for Jay Rockefeller to learn how to answer soft-ball questions.