Harkin, Kerrey started off well but are fading

March 04, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- When Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam War hero, announced his candidacy, one top Democratic National Committee member said, "Let's talk about patriotism with the Republicans this time!"

When Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin joined the Democratic field, college students in Minnesota, stealing a line from political writer David Broder, sported T-shirts with Mr. Harkin's picture saying, "George Bush's Worst Nightmare."

But yesterday, with the presidential fortunes of Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin fading fast, the question was whether they could remain in the race at all.

After earning single digits in Georgia, Maryland and Colorado, Mr. Harkin was in danger of losing his federal matching funds. Mr. Harkin pitched himself as the one "true Democrat" in the race, but his message -- "My father told me the best social program was a job" -- struck voters as both simplistic and dated.

Mr. Kerrey's problems were more difficult to define.

When front-running Georgia Gov. Bill Clinton slumped in the face of critical reports about his personal life, many Democrats put their hopes on Mr. Kerrey. He is better looking than Paul Tsongas, runs marathons despite being an amputee and is a war hero to boot.

But every four years a candidate with a big name or a sterling resume looks good on paper but never manages to excite voters. It happened toSen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1980, to Sen. John H. Glenn in 1984, and to Sen. Al Gore in 1988.

The reasons for their failures are complicated and varied, but with all three it ultimately came down to their inability to answer satisfactorily a basic question: Why do you want to be president?

Mr. Kennedy stumbled over the question in a nationally televised interview with Roger Mudd. Mr. Glenn was a famous astronaut, but voters never envisioned him in the White House.

That may be Mr. Kerrey's problem, too.

Even though he won the congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam and has campaigned throughout the country on the appealing theme that health care should be the right of every American, he admitted at the outset that he decided to run before he knew what he wanted his platform to say.

Mr. Kerrey is starting to find his voice on the campaign trail, but it may have come too late.

He campaigned Tuesday in Arizona, which votes on Saturday, but the Western candidate surging is not Mr. Kerrey: It's former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., whose anti-politics crusade has struck a spark in sagebrush country.

"It's almost a game of survival," said Steve Jarding, Mr. Kerrey's press secretary. "These are fighters in the ring, and somebody's got to go down."

@4 Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin are both on the ropes.

OTHER VOTING

MINNESOTA: Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa fared best last night in a sampling of support at Minnesota's Democratic presidential caucuses, the only measure of party sentiment available there. A straw poll distributed by Democrats at 135 of the 4,100 precinct caucuses showed the Iowa senator with 26.7 percent of the vote, followed by those who listed themselves as undecided at 24.3 percent. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas had 19.2 percent of the vote; Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, 10.3 percent; former California Governor Jerry Brown, 8.2 percent, and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, 7.6 percent. The neighborhood caucuses are the first step in selecting 80 of Minnesota's 87 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Final results will not be available for two weeks.

IDAHO: Democrats hold caucuses to choose 18 of Idaho's delegates to the national convention. With 36 percent of the precincts counted, uncommittedled with 27 percent, Harkin 22 percent and Clinton 20 percent. Republicans pick their delegates in a may 26 primary election.

WASHINGTON: Democratic caucuses choosing 71 of 80 delegates to the national convention. Republicans will choose theirs in a May 19 primary.

UTAH: InDemocratic primary, Tsongas finished first, followed by Brown and Clinton. Open registration allows non-Democrats to vote, and there is no mechanism to keep individuals from voting more than once at different polling places. Republicans will allocate delegates during county conventions in May.

AMERICAN SAMOA: Democratic caucuses to choose six delegates to the national convention.

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