Kerry shows he's serious about the campaign On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

October 08, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Portsmouth, N.H. -- THERE IS a certain beguiling innocence in the way Democrats conduct their campaigns in the New Hampshire presidential primary. What is far from clear is whether there is any connection between this early campaigning and the cruel world of sound-bite politics that lies ahead.

Bob Kerrey is a case in point. The Nebraska senator is spending a full week in the state doing what presidential candidates do here -- that Jack W.Germond &JulesWitcoveris, meeting with small groups of activists in restaurants and living rooms in an attempt to enlist those who can make up the core of his support when the campaign begins to reach a wider audience of voters in the weeks just before Feb. 18.

Like such rivals as Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Gov. Bill Clintonof Arkansas, Kerrey is delivering a basic speech about his personal history and his reasons for seeking the presidency. And, again like his competitors, he is focusing on a few issues that he believes may set him apart from the field.

In Kerrey's case, it is the failure of the health care system and a bill he has offered to provide universal coverage. The Nebraska Democrat is convinced the concern over health care is being underestimated. "The politicians are out of touch on this issue," he says over a bowl of clam chowder at the Oar House here. "God, they're dying out there."

Kerrey uses health care to reinforce his basic charge against President Bush -- that the Republican incumbent is unwilling to confront "controversial issues because of the fear of losing popularity." Kerrey promises, by contrast, to be "a president more concerned about the next generation than the next election."

But the operative question is whether American politics today -- dominated as it is by designed-for-television slogans -- will permit any candidate to be heard and understood on a complex matter.

At this stage, it is not a problem for Kerrey to make himself heard by the 100-plus people who crowd into Katie Wheeler's home in Durham or the 50 or so packed into Patty Blanchette's living room here a couple of hours later. They are by and large the most activist Democrats and, by definition, those most interested in the details of issues.

But Kerrey's position on health care is tricky. He describes the broad outlines of his proposal, then offers to send his questioners a copy of the legislation. But he is vague on the details of financing the plan because it would involve an increase in federal taxes. The Kerrey plan also would include features that would offset some of the costs, but those feature are obviously complex.

Kerrey says he is convinced he can explain the plan to voters and enlist their support. He already has done so, he says, with his constituents in Nebraska.

But the history of recent presidential campaigns suggests this may be more difficult to accomplish than Kerrey seems to believe. Any plan that provides universal health care is quickly labeled "socialized medicine," and offering any formula to finance it inevitably brands a candidate as another liberal plotting to raise taxes. That may not be a problem with the activist liberals who are listening now; it could be a very big problem indeed if the contest becomes reduced to an exchange of televised slogans.

Kerrey has other assets as he plunges into the New Hampshire race. He already has enlisted the backing of many of the most effective Democratic players in the state, and others are preparing to join him. They include many liberals who have not been persuaded that Harkin is a marketable political commodity, some of whom had been prepared to support Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia when he was flirting with a candidacy last summer.

Even some Democratic veterans supporting other choices say the Nebraskan's decision to spend a full week campaigning here on his first visit was an astute political move. "It shows everybody he intends to give us a serious campaign," said one. "It's a signal of commitment, and that's important this year."

The early start is also giving Kerrey a chance to polish his message. He says that after his first week as a declared candidate he already has "acquired my sea legs" and is comfortable in what he is doing. The reaction from his early audiences has been encouraging if not extravagant.

But in the long term the key to Bob Kerrey's success may rest on whether he can make his case on complex issues without being buried under simplistic slogans.

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