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Jack Kemp: From Savior to Scapegoat

Dispirited by Dole, Republicans had put their hopes on his energetic running mate. But then they watched him debate

By Dan Goodgame/Washington


(TIME, October 21) -- Remember how in sandlot baseball games sometimes nobody on your team could hit the ball, and you'd be behind by, say, 16 runs in the final inning? And yet, if you were the last kid to strike out, you were considered the one who lost the game? Well, that's how Jack Kemp felt after last Wednesday night's debate against Vice President Al Gore.

Never mind that the Dole-Kemp ticket trailed Clinton-Gore by 16 points in the polls. Never mind that Bob Dole had gained no ground against President Clinton in a televised debate only three nights earlier. Never mind all that, because many senior Republicans had already resigned themselves to Dole's incoherent campaigning and likely defeat. But there was still a good chance Republicans could keep a hold on Congress and make a better run for the White House in 2000. And in both those struggles Republicans attached their hopes to Kemp, who seemed to be everything Dole was not: energetic and visionary, smiling and articulate, able to draw big crowds and connect with them.

And then, with 45 million people watching on TV, Kemp was judged to have badly lost his debate against Gore. That's what three instant TV polls said. That's what a panel of debate coaches said. And worst of all for Kemp, that's what prominent Republicans said, on the airwaves and, more vehemently, in private. "A disaster," thundered right-wing icon Rush Limbaugh. "We need new leaders!" Many of the callers to his syndicated radio show expressed amazement and anger that Kemp passed up debate moderator Jim Lehrer's invitation to critique President Clinton's ethics, even on such public matters as the collection of FBI background files by the Clinton White House or the President's alleged dangling of pardons before his Whitewater associates.

Conservative columnist George Will declared Kemp to be "verging on incoherent." Bill Bennett, a co-chairman of the Dole campaign, was worried that his close friend Kemp was "concerned too much about being 'nice' and not enough about winning." Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, complained that "if you came down from Mars and saw this debate, you might think that Al Gore was a moderate Republican...and Jack Kemp was the Democrat." Even Dole, in an interview with ABC's Ted Koppel, cracked that Kemp and Gore got along so famously that "it looked like a fraternity picnic there for a while."

But in many ways, Kemp was the victim of a passive-aggressive behavior characteristic of a divided and sour G.O.P.: Dole and his top aides won't say what they want, then get angry when they don't get it. Republicans get angry at Dole and take it out on Kemp. "A lot of Republicans had already decided this campaign was going down, but at least felt good that we had a strong candidate for 2000," says Ed Rollins, who managed Kemp's 1988 effort. "You'd hear, 'If only we had Jack at the top of the ticket.' You're not hearing that now...But the disappointment level is higher than is really justified."

The dysfunction that currently prevails inside the Dole campaign explains why, within hours of the debate, the finger pointing was well under way. Dole's campaign manager, Scott Reed, who once served as a top Kemp aide, put out the word that he was so disappointed with Kemp's lack of fight that he refused to speak with his former boss after the debate. He was particularly upset that Kemp failed to use several scripted zingers. For instance, at some point when Gore cited arcana from Kemp's record, Kemp was supposed to ask, "Say, Al, did you get that out of my FBI file?"

For their part, top Kemp advisers insisted to TIME that neither Reed nor any other campaign official had asked Kemp to attack Clinton's character. Dole himself had sent the signal that the tactic might backfire, they said. "Our surveys show," Dole told ABC, "that a sure way to lose the women is to do the tough stuff."

The problem is that Dole can't seem to decide how to take Clinton on. "I hear a lot of contrary advice from men and women along the rope lines,'' he conceded last week. One of those women, Carol Higgins of Palos Park, Illinois, pleaded with Dole: "When are you going to put the boxing gloves on" and give President Clinton "what he deserves?" Dole giggled as his fans clapped and whooped.

For a while last week the candidate sounded like someone who had chosen Death with Dignity, who wanted, before leaving public life, to erase his public image as a growling hatchet man and put on display for the history books the kind of senatorial courtesy he has been known for in his 35 years on Capitol Hill. Asked by Koppel whether he'd rather "lose as a gentleman or win rough," Dole replied, "Well, I'd like to win, but there are certain limits. I can't see myself getting into the mud here in the last three weeks...Whatever happens, I want to be at peace with myself when it's over." But late Friday campaign co-chairman Bennett--the man who has made a living out of defining a road to personal integrity--told reporters that the campaign planned to release a lengthy report this week on the Clinton Administration's "ethical problems," including the White House's handling of the FBI files and the legal work by Hillary Rodham Clinton that has come under scrutiny by Whitewater investigators. "I'm talking here about issues of public trust. I'm not talking about charges of philandering and that stuff," Bennett said, conveniently mentioning them anyway.

But even listing Clinton's public lapses, which would not require Dole to deliver the blows himself, didn't seem to have the candidate's endorsement. After Bennett finished with reporters, a senior campaign aide showed up to tell them that Dole "had neither made nor decided to announce that decision yet."

And a month after the staff began debating it, the Dole campaign is still on the fence about a key strategic decision--whether to spend millions to fight for California, where the latest polls show a 10-point gap. Republican lawmakers, led by Newt Gingrich, are urging Dole to contest the state, if only to help the effort to hang on to the 26 Republican House seats there. Kemp's promoters, meanwhile, have their own reasons for wanting to contest their man's home state. They hope a good performance in California will help restore Kemp's presidential credentials after his lackluster performance against Gore. They're pushing to get Kemp into the California ads. But if they don't succeed, there are other opportunities after the election. The Kemp team is already dreaming about a fat-cat fund raiser at the Superbowl in New Orleans.

--With reporting by James Carney and Tamala M. Edwards with Dole and John F. Dickerson with Kemp

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