Kemp's presence on ticket extends Republicans' reach Lawmaker's history of helping blacks could swing tight vote

Campaign 1996

August 10, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- Just after his losing campaign for vice president in 1976, Bob Dole was angry at the speculation that his weaknesses as the running mate had been the reason President Gerald R. Ford suffered a narrow loss to Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.

The real problem, he said, was the failure of the Republican ticket to attract more support among black voters. If they had won even 17 percent to 20 percent of that vote -- the kind of share Dole had managed himself as a Senate candidate in Kansas -- they would have won the election by a slim margin.

As a political analyst, Dole was correct. Studies found that Carter's success in winning 90 percent or more of the black vote was critical in helping him carry the electoral votes of Ohio and three or four Southern states -- enough to have made the difference.

This bit of history is worth recalling today because Jack F. Kemp's appeal to blacks is one of the prime political assets he brings to the Dole campaign. If the contest between Dole and President Clinton becomes a squeaker, even a few points more support from African-American voters could be critical.

Republican strategists concede Kemp as vice presidential nominee doesn't have the potential to break the long-standing Democratic hold on black voters. But his long advocacy of programs to broaden the base of his party has given him better credentials than most Republicans.

As a member of Congress and as secretary of housing in the Bush administration, Kemp pressed for legislation to allow public housing tenants to buy their apartments and for what he called "empowerment zones" to bring jobs into inner cities.

As Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois put it: "With blacks, with the Jewish community, with inner city groups, Jack Kemp has a marvelous history of connecting."

Using traditional standards, the choice of Kemp brings nothing obvious to the ticket. After finishing his career as a star quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, Kemp represented a Buffalo district in Congress. But he never was a statewide figure who could help Dole carry New York.

On the contrary, he backed away from campaigns for both governor and senator in New York, in part because polling figures showed that he was unlikely to win.

Nor does Kemp have any special appeal in California despite his earlier stint with the San Diego Chargers and his service as a volunteer activist who worked for Ronald Reagan in both gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

But some operatives close to Dole believe he can have the effect of broadening the GOP ticket's appeal among Reaganites and devotees of supply-side economics, for which he has long been a leading advocate.

As one Dole agent here put it, "Jack's the only guy on the list [of NTC potential running mates] with a constituency out there."

Kemp's principal contribution to Dole is likely to be the optimism and energy he can be expected to bring to the campaign. He is noted for his enthusiasm for ideas on economics and public policy and his insistence on sharing that enthusiasm as widely as possible. As a stump campaigner, his greatest weakness has been his penchant for delivering lengthy speeches in which he seems to be covering every issue in which he is interested.

When he appeared on various lists as a potential vice presidential nominee in 1988, a close friend of George Bush advised a reporter to ignore the speculation.

Bush would never choose Kemp, he said, because he would envision his vice president arriving for a White House luncheon "carrying two armloads of manila fold- ers" stuffed with position papers.

Because Dole is known to think much the same of Kemp, the most significant aspect of Dole's decision to put him on the ticket may be that it demonstrates -- as was the case when he left the Senate -- that he is willing to make some pragmatic reversals to rescue a foundering campaign.

The conventional wisdom among those closest to Dole had been that he would want to name someone with whom he felt particularly comfortable, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Now he has sent a message that he is willing to put aside personal feelings to change the dynamics of the campaign.

The immediate reaction of some Republicans, such as former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, was that Kemp would be most valuable in making the case for the economic program Dole has embraced, including an 15 percent across-the-board tax cut. That is one of the arguments such old Kemp hands as Scott Reed, the Dole campaign manager, John Buckley, the campaign's communications director, and Charles Black, the professional who will run the vice presidential campaign, have been working behind the scenes in selling Kemp to Dole.

The history of recent presidential campaigns suggests that vice presidential nominees rarely make a significant positive contribution other than, in come cases, helping a ticket carry a particular state.

That happened with Texas, for example, when John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960 to make up another strange bedfellows ticket.

But if there is a fertile ground for Kemp, it is likely to be among constituencies that ordinarily are overwhelmingly Democratic.

Pub Date: 8/10/96

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