Nebraska's Kerrey declares for White House Campaign is cast in generational tone

October 01, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Portraying himself as the voice of the next generation of U.S. leaders, Sen. Bob Kerrey joined the presidential race yesterday with a bold appeal for national renewal.

Mr. Kerrey, a Vietnam War hero who first entered politics less than a decade ago, is considered a leading contender for the Democratic nomination even though he is scarcely known outside his native Nebraska.

In an announcement speech of somber eloquence, delivered on a sparkling fall morning in the Nebraska capital, Mr. Kerrey signaled his intention to make the 1992 campaign a fight for the allegiance of the large group of Americans that, like himself, came of age in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

"My generation is uniquely positioned to understand what must be done," said the 48-year-old senator as a strong wind whipped his graying hair. He termed next year's election "a chance to end the feeling that our economic future is impaired."

In a deft bid to cast President Bush as the candidate of the past and himself, by implication, as the choice for the future, Mr. Kerrey described Mr. Bush as "a proud man of the Cold War generation" who has failed to prepare the nation for tomorrow's worldwide economic battles.

A self-made millionaire restaurateur, Mr. Kerrey likened Mr. Bush to a businessman who is a "great person to be around. All his employees love him. But the business is losing money, its future is impaired and all he's offering are excuses as to why nothing can be done.

"It is time for America to change managers," Mr. Kerrey said.

Having spent just two years in the national spotlight, the freshman senator is regarded by Democratic politicians as perhaps the most unpredictable component of a presidential race that defies easy analysis at this stage.

Regarded by skeptics as lacking the seasoning to wage a successful national campaign, Mr. Kerrey surprised even close friends by announcing in late August that he would take a serious look at the 1992 race.

Nebraska's senior senator, Democrat Jim Exon, who suggested Mr. Kerrey as a possible vice-presidential choice last year, now calls him the "odds-on favorite" to win the nomination.

A liberal Democrat with a war-hero background and movie-star good looks, Mr. Kerrey came out of nowhere in 1982 to win election as governor of Nebraska.

He quit after a single term, in what friends describe now as a mid-life crisis.

He has retained his personal popularity in this largely conservative state despite highly publicized romantic dalliances with actress Debra Winger. A divorced father of two teen-age children, Mr. Kerrey was joined on the speaker's platform by his children and former wife, Beverly, who endorsed his candidacy.

Mr. Kerrey's carefully planned announcement ceremony, the most elaborate of this year's campaign, reflects the eclectic cultural blend that his candidacy encompasses.

Amid a panoply of fluttering U.S. flags, a high school band and the choir from Boys Town in Omaha, Neb., warmed up the hometown crowd of several thousand enthusiastic supporters with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

But when Mr. Kerrey strode a red-carpeted path to the microphones, it was to the ear-pounding rock rhythm of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run."

The made-for-TV event was the product of weeks of planning by his campaign staff, several of them key veterans of Gary Hart's abortive 1988 presidential campaign. Mr. Kerrey's stage managers went so far as to truck in lighting equipment from out of state to blot the shadows from the 400-foot-tall shaft of the state Capitol several blocks away, which formed a backdrop for the cameras.

launching his campaign, Mr. Kerrey offered an approach that contrasted sharply with the hard-edged Bush-bashing of other Democrats, especially Sen. Tom Harkin from neighboring Iowa, his chief rival for votes in Midwestern primaries and caucuses.

Mr. Kerrey praised Mr. Bush's decision to reduce unilaterally U.S. nuclear weapons overseas and insisted that his own candidacy was "not so much a fight against George Bush as a fight for what America can be."

Mr. Kerrey, who repeated his speech later in neighboring Colorado, an early primary state, said that "a more difficult enemy" for Democrats is their own defeatism about 1992.

He said that Democrats should reach out to the poor at home and around the world, and raise the nation's sights "as we did in my generation."

Unlike some Democratic rivals, Mr. Kerrey devoted at least a portion of his announcement address to foreign policy, Mr. Bush's area of greatest political strength.

Saying that America must adopt a new role abroad and pay increased attention to the conflict between rich and poor nations, he also criticized the Japanese government's nationalistic trade policies, which he said would "make life more miserable" for the inhabitants of impoverished Third World countries.

Mr. Kerrey is the fourth Democrat to formally enter the presidential race so far, joining Mr. Harkin, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is to declare his candidacy Thursday, and former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown of California is expected to announce next month.

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