Far Back in Polls, Kemp May Have Lost Winning Image

Times Staff Writer

Jack Kemp was a winning pro football quarterback. He has a winning smile, a winning personality, a winning way with words and a winning grasp of issues conservatives hold dear--opposition to abortion and tax hikes, support for anti-Communist guerrillas and a Pentagon buildup.

Then why is he not even close to winning the race for the Republican presidential nomination?

“When I talk to people in the community, electability is a big factor,” said Ron Geiger, chairman of the Kemp campaign here in northwest Iowa’s Plymouth County. “They agree with Kemp philosophically but they’re going to go with Bush or Dole because they think one of them is going to win. People want to be associated with a winner.”

In a game where perceptions mold reality, Kemp, the bubbly Buffalo congressman with the feel-good ideology of Ronald Reagan and the blow-dry hairdo of John F. Kennedy, has so far failed to cultivate the winning image he needs to endear him electorally to die-hard conservative soul mates.


Squeezed Between Opponents

He is mired deep in the public opinion polls, caught in a squeeze between opponents with far better name recognition like Vice President George Bush and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole on one side and, on the other, former television evangelist Pat Robertson, who has preempted much of the religious right support that otherwise might have flowed to Kemp.

Even Kemp’s campaign coups have fallen flat. Last week he trumpeted the news that Tim LaHaye, an influential Christian right leader, had joined his camp instead of Robertson’s. A few days later, LaHaye was bounced from the campaign amid charges that books he had written contained anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic passages.

Ironically, at the heart of Kemp’s problems lies a quality he touts as a major asset--a slavish devotion to the economic, domestic and, until very recently, foreign agenda of the Reagan Administration. Kemp of late has joined the conservative chorus criticizing the intermediate-range nuclear disarmament treaty Reagan signed Dec. 8 with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.


Takes Credit for Tax Cut

But on most other issues, particularly fiscal concerns, Kemp may be Reagan’s most lusty cheerleader. He proudly takes credit for the landmark 1981 tax slashing bill that became the centerpiece of Reaganomics. And he is quick to attack opponents--Dole and Bush among them--who have joined a growing chorus of politicians and economists edging away from supply-side dogma with veiled talk of tax hikes or so-called revenue enhancements to trim the deficit.

In its latest issue, the conservative National Review lauds Kemp as “the most plausible heir” to the Reagan legacy.

High praise indeed for a true Reagan acolyte but not necessarily good politics. The Iran-Contra affair, the stock market crash and other Administration stumbling have worn a little of the shine off the Reagan star even among staunch right-wingers. After Kemp spoke to Plymouth County Republicans recently at a dinner at Archie’s Wayside Inn, campaign recruiter Stan Dickman acknowledged that the Reagan connection could make it hard for him to sell Kemp to voters.


‘What’s So Good?’

“Jack Kemp represents the Reagan doctrine,” said Dickman, also a Le Mars city councilman. “People are going to start saying: ‘What’s so good about that?’ It’s an Administration that seems to lack direction. It can’t even get its nominees on the Supreme Court.”

Kemp seems undaunted by such fears. He reeks of Reagan-style optimism while other candidates preach sacrifice and belt-tightening. “He’s an enthusiastic supporter of America,” said Erma Christiansen, a Republican Party official in the Sioux City area and a strong Kemp enthusiast. “There’s no gloom and doom from Jack.”

At the Le Mars gathering, Kemp preempted pessimists by proclaiming that he saw “nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed” with a little fine-tuning. “Don’t let anybody tell you we’re going to hell in a hand basket. . . . There are no limits to growth as long as you don’t put limits on the mentality and the potential of human beings, free societies, free markets. You’re going to live in a golden age of opportunity.”


More Reaganomics Urged

Kemp’s solution to trimming the budget deficits that have spooked investors, battered the value of the dollar and rocked consumer confidence is more Reaganomics, more tax cuts, a steep slash in interest rates, fewer barriers to international trade and a return to a modified version of the gold standard.

“The fault line in our party is not as much a left-right ideological fault line as it is a growth versus austerity fault line,” Kemp said later in an interview. “Basically, Bush and Dole fall in the trap of believing that all the problems in the country are the result of fiscal deficits and fiscal problems. That is a trap. It is a conundrum. . . . I’m not preaching Pollyanna economics and I don’t believe in a free lunch. But I do believe that there is hope and I think the focus of leadership, whether it’s in a family or the football team or in a business or a community or a country, is to give people hope.”

To a great extent, Kemp’s campaign strategy is based on hope--the hope that a poor showing in the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses will bump one or more of the other major candidates out of the race. Campaign strategists insist that Kemp is the second choice of many Bush and Robertson supporters and stands to inherit much of their support should they stumble.


Hope for Respectable Showing

“This is more a place where he doesn’t want to get buried,” said John Dorr, a hog farmer who is coordinating the Kemp campaign in Cherokee County in northwest Iowa. “I don’t think he’ll come in first or second,” he said, but he expressed the hope that Kemp will still make a respectable showing.

Kemp and his lieutenants say the biggest drag on his progress has been a a lack of name recognition among rank-and-file Republicans. To counteract that, Kemp began running campaign commercials on Iowa television stations in October, weeks ahead of any of his GOP opponents.

Borrowing from the upbeat “morning in America” theme Reagan used in his 1984 reelection campaign, one spot shows Kemp ambling through a small Iowa town early in the day. He stops to pick up a football that has gotten away from a scrimmage of youngsters and tosses it back to them as an announcer declares: “The fact is, from quarterbacking the Buffalo Bills to league championships to 17 years of leadership in the Congress, to co-authoring the historic tax cuts of the 1980s, Jack Kemp has been the captain of every team he’s ever played on.”


Wears Championship Ring

Kemp is not one to shy from his football background. On his right hand he wears a championship ring he won while leading the Bills to the top of the old American Football League in 1964 and 1965. Rarely does a campaign event go by without at least one reference to his previous incarnation on the gridiron.

“Being an old quarterback you don’t go into the huddle and say: ‘Gee, has anybody got a good play?’ ” Kemp says in explaining how he plans to run a hands-on White House should he win. “You don’t go into the huddle and say: ‘Gee, those guys are big over there. I don’t think this play will work but let’s give it a try.’ The purpose of leadership is to tell people what can be done, how to do it and to motivate them.”

Kemp supporters too like to talk of their man in football analogies. “He’s fast, he’s like a quarterback, bam, bam, bam,” Arie Oliver, Kemp’s Sioux County campaign chairman, said in describing the candidate’s uneven campaign style. On the stump, Kemp acts like someone scrambling around the backfield trying to elude a defensive blitz.


Nervous Whispers Evoked

Typically, he rattles off a dizzying stream of numbers as well as names of obscure economic theorists, evoking nervous whispers or sagging eyelids from many in the audience. He darts around the dais, repeatedly putting his glasses on, taking them off and often twirling them in his right hand. In his left hand, which makes broad gestures to underscore points, is a plastic foam coffee cup.

“He talks too fast,” Oliver acknowledged as Kemp darted between appearances in Sioux City recently. “I told Jack once: ‘The mind can only comprehend what the posterior can stand.’ But he said: ‘I can’t help it. I got so much to say.’ ”