WASHINGTON -- Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, the presidential candidate who seemed to have it all heading into the campaign, wistfully bowed out of the race yesterday, telling supporters he'd been too late in clinching one vital ingredient: a connection with voters.
With a good-natured ease, warmth and humor that often eluded him on the campaign trail, he told a roomful of cheering, sometimes teary-eyed supporters and Senate colleagues: ". . . after Tuesday I feel a little like the Jamaican bobsled team. We had a lot of spirit, but unfortunately, we didn't get a lot of medals."
Mr. Kerrey, a 48-year-old winner of the Medal of Honor whose platform was built around a plan for national health insurance, said his campaign had run out of money, if not enthusiasm.
"This is no retreat and this is no surrender," he said, borrowing words from Bruce Springsteen much as he did when ushering in his campaign to strains of "Born to Run." "For me, the fight simply is going to move on to new arenas."
While some speculate that former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas will be the likely beneficiary of Mr. Kerrey's exit since their upscale, yuppie constituencies were most alike, others don't see any one candidate gaining dramatically from his withdrawal. Mr. Kerrey "had more potential to attract votes than he had voters," says a Kerrey adviser, Mike McCurry. "All of the other candidates will benefit from one less person taking up electrons in the free media."
Returning to the Senate seat he won in 1988, Mr. Kerrey left wide open the possibility of another presidential bid, emphatically answering "Yes" when asked if he would run again. "The cause that got me in this to begin with is still alive," he said after wild applause and cheers.
In fact, this experience could easily position him for a later run, say political strategists. "I don't think he's hurt himself at all by what he's done," says a Democratic consultant, Greg Schneiders. "If he goes back to the Senate and puts together a respectable career there, four, eight or 12 years from now he could comeback with a clear idea of what he wants to do and why he wants to do it."
His early withdrawal from the race could also make him an attractive candidate for the No. 2 spot on this year's Democratic ticket. But the former Navy SEAL said he was "not enthusiastic about the notion." Referring to the vice presidential residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory, he joked: "I've lived in Navy quarters before."
While some observers have suggested the Vietnam veteran and former Nebraska governor was ill-served by advisers -- in fact, Mr. Kerrey had criticized one of his own ads -- he assumed sole blame for the failed campaign yesterday, saying: "The fact is a campaign depends upon the candidate, and the candidate's capacity to communicate to the audience and to communicate to the people themselves and to establish trust and confidence, and I did not begin to do that until very late in the campaign itself."
Campaign manager Tad Devine said that after the New Hampshire primary, where Mr. Kerrey trailed Mr. Tsongas and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, "we were unable to raise a lot of money and that has effectively foreclosed the candidacy."
Many political strategists point to Mr. Kerrey's very late start, lack of preparation and hopscotch-like message in explaining the failure of his campaign ever to catch fire.
"He entered the race somewhat impulsively," says Mr. Schneiders. "He didn't have a clear idea about why he wanted to run, or how he would be different from the other candidates.
"A presidential campaign is not something you make up as you go along. Clinton had been planning this since somewhere late in the Truman administration. And Tsongas clearly had an idea of what needed to be done."
Aside from his lateness -- and the fact that most people outside his home state probably knew him best for his dating the actress Debra Winger -- many say his personal charm had come only through in the last weeks of his campaign. Often, especially in the early stages, he came across as icy and aloof, sometimes passive, sometimes brash.
"Somehow in the campaign you never got the real force of his personality," says one political consultant, Robert D. Squier. "He seemed to have a sweet, old-fashioned idea that if the voters selected him, he would serve. It was not a year for that. Democrats want somebody who can go out there and do in Bush."
Senator Kerrey said yesterday he would campaign with enthusiasm for whichever of the four remaining Democrats wins the party's nomination -- even Mr. Clinton, the target of Mr. Kerrey's most aggressive rhetoric. "If he's the nominee of the party I will campaign feverishly to make certain that he wins the election in November," said the disabled veteran who feverishly attacked the Arkansas governor's draft avoidance last week.
But for now, it was back to Nebraska for a "welcome home" rally yesterday afternoon. His mood, says Mr. McCurry, was the same as it had been on the plane ride into Washington Wednesday: "No tears, but a lot of good rock and roll."