IF the Republican primaries were conducted like the pro football draft, Jack Kemp would clearly be a first-round pick. The nine-term congressman from the Buffalo, N.Y., suburbs is a rarity: a House member of truly national stature. He has ruddy, poster-ready looks. And on the stump, he bristles with energy and confidence. Though prone to obscure digressions on economics, his pet subject, he has mastered the in-your-face line that sacks his liberal opponents.
The progressive income tax, he says, ``doesn't redistribute wealth. It redistributes poverty.''
It was Mr. Kemp who sold Ronald Reagan on ``supply-side'' economics, the theory that tax cuts and a gold-based dollar would open floodgates of enterprise, bringing balanced budgets and prosperity without belt-tightening.
Polemically at least, Kemp has helped Republicans seize the traditional Democratic issues of economic opportunity and growth. He has made a serious effort to appeal to blue-collar workers and minorities.
Yet Kemp's campaign is struggling. The darling of his Buffalo constituents, still called ``Number 15'' from his pro football days, is having a rough time selling his economics unadorned. Polls show him stuck in single digits, far behind GOP rivals George Bush and Robert Dole.
At stake is not just a candidacy, but who gets to define the Republican party after Reagan. In Kemp's view, the battle is between ``old-guard, Herbert Hoover Republicans'' like Mr. Bush and Mr. Dole and ``Republicans like me, who believe in economic opportunity.''
It is too early to count Kemp out. Tax cuts and prosperity are always appealing campaign themes. Still, Kemp's problems stem at least in part from his own success.
Since his early pro football days with the San Diego Chargers, the handsome young athlete had been groomed as a Republican John F. Kennedy. With then-President Nixon's prompting, Kemp first won his congressional seat in 1970, after quarterbacking the Buffalo Bills to two American Football League titles in the mid-'60s.
Two years later, Mr. Nixon trounced George McGovern. Kevin Phillips, the Republican prognosticator, was talking about an ``Emerging Republican Majority.'' But then came Watergate, and the Democratic congressional landslide of 1974. Kemp was still in congressional Siberia, a junior member of the minority party.
While Democrats had the fun, pumping up the economy with tax cuts and social programs, all the Republicans could do was say ``No.'' And the position was especially uncomfortable in Kemp's case.
From the Erie Canal to World War II defense contracts, Buffalo largely owed its existence to government initiatives. And Kemp himself, while opposing spending generally, was doing his share to keep the spigot flowing to his district.
``There has not been a federal program that has been proposed for western New York that has not had my support,'' he told an audience during the 1984 campaign.
Kemp was aware of the philosophical inconsistency. Moreover, he is by temperament a quarterback, a guy who likes to direct the action. As a congressman he was stuck playing defense - and not liking it a bit.
``The liberal left had a thesis, which was to spend,'' Kemp said in an interview a few years ago. ``And we had an antithesis, which was not to spend. ... I said, `Hey, wait a minute. We need a thesis.'''
In 1976, that thesis arrived in the person of Jude Wanniski, then a Wall Street Journal editorial writer, who was beginning to proselyte for the supply-side view. From Kemp's brainstorming with Mr. Wanniski came the Kemp-Roth tax-cut bill, first introduced in 1978. Kemp called the proposal the ``No. 1 offensive play in the country.'' It was a long pass, over the heads of the Democratic leadership, to the voters.
Actually, the supply siders weren't saying anything new. After all, they delight in noting that President John Kennedy's 1963 tax cut is heralded in the economic texts for reviving the economy.
But Kennedy's tax cut had targeted low- and middle-income people, under the assumption they would spend more. Supply-side cuts, on the other hand, gave the greatest benefits to people in the highest tax brackets, on the theory that, by keeping more of every dollar received, these individuals would have more incentive to produce and invest.
The supply-side theory fit perfectly the mood of the late '70s, when inflation was pushing middle-income Americans into tax brackets originally intended for the wealthy. The supply siders turned the ensuing resentment into a polemics of economic redemption. There was virtually no problem that would not fall before the curative of a tax cut.
``The $2,000 exemption [provided in the 1986 tax-reform act] is the single most pro-family proposal in 40 years,'' Kemp has said. On top of this, economist Arthur Laffer argued that tax cuts would generate so much economic growth that they would pay for themselves. Buffalo could keep its federal grants.
THE language was taxes and economics. But in the general malaise of the Carter years, the underlying message of Kemp-Roth was optimism and hope. ``Austerity is not the answer,'' Kemp would exclaim. ``Austerity is the problem.''
``There is no limit to what the American people can do - to the prosperity we can create.''
Kemp's upbeat message is of a piece with the man. The world it evokes is the world he grew up in, booming post-War Southern California, where his father built a trucking business from scratch. The unifying theme is the belief that the economic winds are inherently benevolent and brisk, as long as tax and monetary policy are kept properly in trim.
``The economic upheavals of this century have been caused primarily by tax, regulatory, or monetary policy blunders by government,'' Kemp says. He calls for a kind of government action by inaction. For example, the ``enterprise zones'' he has proposed for inner cities would be areas with even lower taxes than in the community at large.
In person, Kemp is less doctrinaire than in his public utterances, and has a rambunctious, gung-ho charm. He has a genuine passion for ideas, and will keep exasperated staff aides at bay while debating a reporter on points large and small. For advice, Kemp leans heavily on a supply-side ``cabal'' of publicists and academics such as Mr. Wanniski and Prof. Irving Kristol of New York University.
Young conservatives in the House of Representatives regard Kemp as a mentor and inspiration. Newt Gingrich of Georgia once called him ``the most important Republican since Teddy Roosevelt.''
To some others, though, he's a ``hot dog'' who operates through newspaper op-ed pages while they do the legislative head-butting. Kemp lacks Reagan's conciliatory graces, and his tenacity isn't always endearing, even to GOP colleagues. Nor does he get high marks as a listener. ``You have to tackle him to get a word in edgewise,'' says a House Democrat.
KEMP'S game plan has been to claim Reagan's right-wing constituency in the primaries, then develop his more inclusive economic themes in the general election. The ideal scenario had a Democratic opponent calling for tax hikes, `a la Walter Mondale in 1984.
Yet Kemp is crowded on the right by the Rev. Pat Robertson, for whom issues like abortion are comfortable terrain. Kemp prefers the less divisive politics of optimism and growth.
Hence, where he had steered clear of budget cutting, calling it ``root-canal'' economics, he began attacking urban grants, even while continuing to garner them for Buffalo. On foreign policy, his supply-side visions for the third world have yielded to a conventional anticommunism.
At the same time, his efforts to broaden the Republican appeal make him suspect to many conservatives. He opposes, for example, both the balanced-budget constitutional amendment and right-to-work laws (he was a founder of the pro football players association). And as Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, a close House ally, points out, right wingers aren't used to talk about inner-city poverty, even if the proposed cures are privatized public housing and tax cuts. ``The average conservative hears that [supply-side] message and is puzzled,'' Mr. Weber says.
Perhaps worst from a political standpoint, the catnip of Kemp's economic agenda - the tax cuts - are now law. ``Much of what he has advocated has been done,'' notes Rep. Jim Courter (R) of New Jersey. ``It's now a maintenance function,'' says Kemp's pollster, V. Lance Tarrance. ``Now it's keeping taxes low.''
Kemp's new tax initiatives, such as enterprise zones, lose their punch with tax rates so much lower now. And Kemp no longer has Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale as foils, except in memory. ``Jack would have been better off running [against] a Democratic president,'' says Eddie Mahe, a GOP campaign consultant.
The Kemp camp contends that its supply-side mission is far from finished. There's the gold standard, for one thing. Kemp says it would solve most of the problems of American farmers, help balance the federal budget, and lift the third world out of debt. He also envisions a world-wide supply-side offensive - a common market, for example, to swamp the Sandinistas in Central American capitalism.
Kemp calls himself a ``small `d' democratic Republican,'' and he does have populist instincts. He has attacked federal subsidies for corporations, such as those provided by the Export-Import Bank. He never much liked the expensive corporate breaks that were tacked onto the 1981 Kemp-Roth individual cuts.
YET critics contend that Kemp-Roth gave real cuts only to those making over $75,000 a year. And another item of the supply-side agenda, further tax cuts for capital gains, hardly enhances Kemp's populist aura.
``He constantly battles the Republicans' country-club image,'' says Michael Barker of the Democratic Leadership Conference. ``But he fixes on policies that line the pockets of the country-club set.''
Kemp faces a further problem. Even though George Bush called supply-side theories ``voodoo economics'' in his 1980 presidential bid, as vice-president he gets first claim to Reagan's reflected glow. ``We will be sure Jack takes credit'' for the tax cuts, says Jeff Bell, a campaign aide.
That's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, few Americans are complaining about the tax cuts. On the other hand, the massive federal deficit and recent stock-market crash have taken the bloom off the rose. Kevin Phillips calls Kemp's economic message ``substantially discredited'' and ``obsolescent.''
Kemp disagrees. The voters must decide. But the question remains whether Kemp has anything to offer now that it is 1987 and not 1976.
Kemp cannot be accused of ducking all the tough issues. He bore the blasts of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, for example, by supporting an end to the federal income-tax deduction for state taxes, to help finance an increase in the individual exemption on federal returns.
Still, there's a widespread feeling that Kemp's economics are a kind of theoretical Wonderland. Always, it seems, he's had an excuse for supply-side failures. For the recession of 1982 - the tax cuts weren't big enough. For the deficit - the tight money policies of the Federal Reserve. He insists that as President he would need to ask no sacrifices from anyone except the federal government and the Fortune 500.
``His speech is an attractive speech,'' says Rep. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. ``But people have been hit with enough bad news by now to know that it's not real, that he's avoiding the hard choices.''
Weber acknowledges that the supply siders ``have made a rhetorical mistake, arguing that economic growth can solve all problems.''
Says Joseph Minarich, an economist at the Urban Institute: ``There is more to life than economics. And there is more to economics than taxes.''
Conservative head, liberal heart
SINCE Richard Nixon's ``Southern strategy'' of 1968, Republicans have tried to wrest away traditional Democratic constituencies through ``social issues'' such as school prayer and abortion. Jack Kemp, by contrast, has tried to fashion a Republican economic appeal, and to extend it to minorities as well.
To do so, he had to reconcile his ``conservative'' beliefs in low taxes and minimum restraints on business with ``liberal'' concerns for workers, minorities, and the elderly. The solution - conceptually, at least - is ``supply-side'' economics, which promotes tax cuts not to starve the government, but to encourage economic growth.
Kemp says this growth will both reduce the need for government services and provide plenty of revenue for those needs that remain. He identifies with the optimistic boosterism of Calvin Coolidge, rather than what he calls the ``Herbert Hoover'' Republicanism of rivals George Bush and Bob Dole.
Kemp is fond of saying that ``Americans don't elect Republicans to repeal the New Deal.'' Like most conservatives, he opposes defense cuts. Unlike most conservatives, he is not big on domestic budget cuts, either. He does not support the balanced-budget amendment, and puts social security, Head Start, and food stamps more or less off limits. To the extent he has pushed cuts, they have been in non-``safety net'' programs.
Nonetheless, Kemp's record suggests he would cut deeper into domestic spending before considering more taxes.
Foreign policy. Kemp is a hard-line anticommunist. He strongly supports the contras in Nicaragua, and opposed the recent arms agreement with the Soviets. His secretary of state would likely be Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former United Nations ambassador, or someone of similar views. Where Kemp differs from other conservatives is his stress on economic development in the third world, which he says can come about through supply-side policies.
Social issues. Though Kemp opposes abortion, he tries to steer questions on social issues back to economics. ``Poverty is a social issue,'' he says. He has supported both the Equal Rights Amendment and the Martin Luther King birthday holiday. In Kemp's view, the nation pursues its destiny primarily by creating wealth. He rarely speaks of environmental concerns, preferring to dwell on the sunny side of economic growth rather than on its unpleasant offshoots.
First in a series. Tomorrow: Albert Gore Jr.