Looking Ahead To `Candidate' Kemp

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JACK KEMP sells his economic message with the zeal of an old-time Bible-thumping Southern preacher. Most successful politicians are sincere. Bill Clinton is Mr. Sincerity. Mr. Kemp has this quality, too, in abundance. But this Republican superstar goes beyond that: He is passionate.

Most politicians find it easy to bring passion to issues that, like civil rights, involve people being hurt. But who else but Kemp can talk about taxes and economic growth and the nuts and bolts of politics with such emotion?

Kemp doesn't just enter a room where he is to make a public appearance: He breezes in, exuding a supreme confidence. This former football notable looks like he is bursting on the field for the Big Game.

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It was snowing the other morning when Kemp was the guest at a Monitor breakfast in Washington. Before taking his seat he moved around the big oblong table, shaking hands, patting backs, and bantering with everyone.

I was reminded of Kemp's football days and how spunky that relatively small quarterback was as the giant opposing linemen would batter him to the turf. He would drag himself to his feet and go at it again and again. It was the "gutsy" Jack Kemp that those blue-collar workers admired so much and who later helped to elect and keep him in Congress.

Kemp is no longer in Congress. He is also now out as the head of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Indeed, he might be viewed as a political has-been. But he is not. Jack Kemp is regarded by most observers as a leading if not the leading Republican potential presidential candidate in the nation today. Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas holds the highest position occupied by a Republican. But Kemp is the Republican who is being widely viewed as the "most likely" opponent to President Clinton in 1996.

Kemp's appeal is wide. He attracts blue-collar Democrats who once voted for Ronald Reagan and then went back to Clinton last fall. He is also favored by blacks and Hispanics who feel that Kemp, as secretary of HUD, was working hard to make life better for them. They hailed his enterprise-zone idea and his efforts to make it possible for the poor to own their homes.

Kemp is one of the very few Republican politicians who can walk the streets of the nation's inner cities and know that he is welcome. As a presidential candidate he might even be able to take some votes away from Clinton in those areas. No other Republican candidate (except Gen. Colin Powell, should he really be a Republican and be interested in running for president) could do that.

But, most of all, Kemp is the darling of the conservatives. They like his emphasis on stimulating economic growth as the answer to business woes and joblessness. And when he attacks Clinton's tax increases and vows that he would lower rather than raise taxes, they say: "Kemp is our man."

"I have some credibility on this subject of opposing tax increases," Kemp says, "because I had to oppose my own administration's tax increase, led by the director of the Office of Management and Budget." This meant he bucked President Bush when he broke his pledge not to raise taxes. Since then, Kemp's relationship with Mr. Bush has never been much better than what diplomats characterize as "correct."

Kemp also reaches out to those who bolted and voted for Ross Perot. Many of them will be attracted to his approach to solving all economic problems, including the trimming of the immense deficit: Through stimulating economic growth.

Kemp, like Mr. Perot, is already using Larry King's TV talk show to sell his point of view. He has been on that program twice in recent weeks.

Kemp won't hear of being called the GOP frontrunner. Under questioning he would only admit that the new political coalition he is helping to lead - Empower America - could be a venue for him "and others" to help launch a presidential candidacy.

Kemp knows about preseason favorites: They often get knocked off. He will doubtless wait until after the congressional elections in 1994 before letting his aspirations officially become known.

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