Omaha, Neb. -- SEN. BOB KERREY, who earlier this year was saying he didn't even know whether he wanted to be president, was asked here the other day why he decided to rush in where other, more experienced Democrats, obviously intimidated by President Bush's popularity, clearly have feared to tread. His reply began with the usual rationale. "I feel a real sense of urgency to change the things we're doing in the United States of America," Kerrey said. "I see the trend lines toward things going in the wrong direction .. . . The urgency is strong enough that I can't just stay out of the race in 1992. I can't sit by and watch for four more years of what I think is essentially neglect of our status in the world and our status here at home."
Challengers almost always say much the same. And when they buck the kind of odds any Democrat taking on George Bush will face next year, there often is an added element of personal dislike with the incumbent. When Robert Kennedy took on Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and brother Ted challenged Jimmy Carter in 1980, each was driven not only by deep dissatisfaction with the policies of the incumbent but with the man himself.
Kerrey, though, appears to bear little animus toward Bush, and his stated unhappiness with the direction of the country under Bush does not seem to burn with the intense flame that fired the Kennedys.
Kerrey, pressed to explain why he was running now, went on: "In my own lifetime, I've had enough experience not only in business but outside of business to understand the meaning of the word 'opportunity,' and if you don't seize an opportunity you never get it back again. It's lost forever."
To illustrate his point, Kerrey, who had been talking about the need to "fully fund" the Head Start program for pre-school children, cited scientific findings that "you've got a very small window in which to provide an environment for a child as they're developing. From conception to about one year, that's the time in which that brain develops. And unless you're there providing an environment, a proper environment, you're never going to get that opportunity again . . . I see opportunities like that all the way down the line that I don't think are going to be seized in the next four years, and it troubles me enough that I'm willing to run now."
There's no reason to question that this concern was not a major or even prime motivating element in Kerrey's decision to seek the Democratic nomination. But it is also a fact that circumstances have provided a political window of opportunity for him, a window that advisers were pointing out to him in the weeks before he disclosed his surprise decision to run after months of seeming lack of interest.
Through the spring and early summer, these advisers had been discussing with him and among themselves the developing political terrain for 1992. As one after another Democratic prospect took himself out of consideration, and as Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York continued to insist he had "no plans to make plans" to run, a vacuum of serious candidates was occurring.
According to Kerrey insiders, the sense of urgency he expressed in explaining why he finally decided to run was always there, but he could console himself with the thought that some other worthy Democrat would be addressing it. When it appeared increasingly that this might not be so (before Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, for one, decided he would run), Kerrey began to see his "window of opportunity" in a more positive light.
At a meeting in early July, Kerrey advisers told him he had about 90 days to make up his mind in time to launch an effective campaign. "For the first 30 days," according to former Rep. John Cavanaugh of Omaha, one of the Kerrey insiders, "nothing happened." But as the senator returned home for the summer congressional recess and heard Nebraskans' concerns about various domestic problems, making the race now began to crystallize in his mind.
It is easy to dismiss this account of how Kerrey decided to run as window dressing for pure political ambition -- seizing that tactical "window of opportunity" and then layering it with do-good rhetoric. But at 48, with less than three years in the Senate, Kerrey like other Democrats could have afforded to wait until 1996. Heading into 1992, though, he now appears to be one of the stronger candidates in a field devoid of the heaviest Democratic hitters.