Bob Kerrey: striving to go beyond charisma On Politics Today

Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

January 22, 1992|By Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N. H. — Manchester, N. H.-- WHEN Sen. Bob Kerrey launched his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, his supporters billed him as the next John F. Kennedy, complete with charisma. He was young, 48, boyish-looking and a Vietnam war hero whose exploits were at least a match for the PT-109 saga.

In the following weeks, however, he seemed to turn the charisma spigot on and off, sometimes impressing crowds, more often leaving them lukewarm as he struggled to produce an effective message. He appeared at times to have difficulty getting his own enthusiasm up, leading to critical observations that he hadn't yet developed in his own mind a detailed rationale for running.

Mr. Kerrey, the criticism held,was becoming a johnny-one-note by harping repeatedly on his proposal for national health insurance. Having already sponsored legislation that would guarantee health care for all Americans in a nation in which 37 million are now uncovered, Mr. Kerrey often came off as a political fiddler with a single string.

But his pitch came amid polls demonstrating growing public concern over the issue, with workers losing not only their paychecks but often their health coverage in layoffs. And other candidates began to latch onto health care, especially after Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford upset former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in Pennsylvania's special Senate election by making heavy use of the issue.

Still, Mr. Kerrey gave the impression on the stump here in New Hampshire and elsewhere that he was putting all his chips on health care, and bogging down in the process. When he declared his candidacy in Lincoln in September, he struck a distinct generational theme. "I am running for president of the United States," he said, "because the future I fear for my children is already a reality for far too many Americans. I am running for president because none of this, none of this, has to be. It is time for leadership committed to posterity rather than popularity, and focused on the next generation rather than the next election."

But Mr. Kerrey's concentration on health care inevitably required a focus on the elderly and sometimes the image of a young John F. Kennedy seeking new horizons, if not frontiers, risked being overshadowed, especially when Mr. Kerrey came off as bland, meandering and running low on charisma. At the same time, another Democratic candidate, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, was wowing audiences -- and shooting ahead in the polls -- with a broad, specific agenda for the country, delivered vividly and concisely.

A few weeks ago, according to Bill Shore, one of Mr. Clinton's political advisers, Mr. Kerrey decided to take a closer look at his message and delivery. Aides began taping his speeches and giving him transcripts to go over. The exercise took place as the Kerrey campaign was undergoing a shake-up, with heavyweight political consultants David Doak and Bob Shrum coming aboard, which may have had something to do with it, although Mr. Shore says not.

In any event, Mr. Kerrey is striking the generational theme again, as he did in recent speeches at Dartmouth College and Manchester West High School, and is fleshing out his message beyond health care, while retaining it as the centerpiece of his campaign. He talks now about a tougher U.S. trade policy toward Japan, an industrial policy at home and use of American technology to generate high-wage jobs in transportation and communications.

Also, at both schools as in the candidates' debate here the other night, Mr. Kerrey in a pitch for restoring family values told of pimps recruiting six-year-old girls in Atlanta because they were unlikely to have AIDS. "This isn't going on in Bangladesh, this is going on in America," he said at the high school, as gasps went through the audience.

Mr. Kerrey's attempts to broaden his message and appeal are coming none too soon. The most recent poll in the Boston Globe showed Mr. Clinton ahead in New Hampshire with 29 percent, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts second with 17 and Mr. Kerrey third with 16.

So far, Bob Kerrey has disappointed those who thought they would see a JFK of the 1990s in him. But if he has fallen short in charisma, he clearly is trying to inject more substance into his message while, as he puts it, "trying to incite a debate" on health care as the one issue that worries Americans, and can beat George Bush in the fall.

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