WHEN Bob Kerrey stepped before TV cameras and cheering supporters to announce his presidential campaign here this week, media advisers had refined even the smallest details of the electronic image that would flash across America.Five blocks away from the outdoor Kerrey rally, technicians had fired up 15 powerful floodlights, even though it was a bright, blue Nebraska morning. The capitol would be visible to television viewers over the candidate's shoulder as he spoke, and strategists wanted the 400-foot-tall limestone building bathed with extra light so it would photograph well. The Kerrey campaign's attention to even the tiniest elements of style reminds some critics, like Republican James Rogers, of the kind of media strategy that once helped put Ronald Reagan into the White House. Senator Kerrey, says Mr. Rogers, who was once a speech writer for former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr, has "a deft feel for the drama of the moment. He can appeal to deep feelings in people. He has a charisma most Nebraska politicians don't have." Joseph Robert (Bob) Kerrey isn't well known, but in the next four months leading up to the New Hampshire primary, he could well become a household name. A Medal of Honor winner who lost part of one leg as a Navy Seal in Vietnam, Kerrey has captured every political prize he sought in Nebraska with surprising ease. Like former Sen. Gary Hart, whom he supported for the White House in 1984, Kerrey talks of "new ideas," and encourages his staff to look for fresh solutions to old problems. But also like Mr. Hart, Kerrey creates nagging doubts in some observers.
Flexible thinker In a lengthy portrait of Kerrey, the New York Times once called him "the unfinished politician," a reference to his seemingly endless quest to change and improve not only government, but himself. It is a characterization that his friends generally support. F. Gregory Hayden, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, once served on then-Governor Kerrey's staff as a special assistant for policy research. He agrees that Kerrey's personal views will always be fluid. "He will never be finished in his own mind. He will take off in new directions, take risks." But Kerrey's searching mind doesn't worry Professor Hayden. He says: "I would emphasize that he is a cautious person. He is a risk-taker with his own life and political career. But in terms of what he does with government programs or government money, he is extremely cautious." In the early 1980s, when Kerrey served as governor of Nebraska, this caution led to criticism from progressives, Hayden says. In the face of hard times, Kerrey told liberals "no" to spending programs. That view of events is confirmed by Bob Sittig, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. During the 1982-83 recession, Dr. Sittig says, Kerrey was faced with two choices: "Raise taxes, or cut spending. And he chose to cut spending, and that alienated some supporters. But with brashness and self-confidence, he engenders support and commitment, and he eventually won his way back with many Nebraskans."
Enigmatic politician Despite his great popularity here, however, skeptics still wonder what makes the senator tick. Kerrey himself seems to encourage speculation about his inner character, and what motivates him. In his announcement speech, he conceded that after the Vietnam war, which he eventually opposed, he returned to Nebraska as a "weakened, lonely, and altogether unpleasant young man." He credits the people of Lincoln with helping him rediscover his spirit. Even today, Kerrey exhibits the kind of introspection that worries critics. Rogers, who is working toward his doctorate in political science at the University of Iowa, says after watching Kerrey's career: "Kerrey has a great image, but what's inside?... He reminds me of Robert Redford's line in 'The Candidate,' where Redford wins the election and says, 'What do we do now?'... He enjoys playing the political game, and he can manipulate symbols so he can make voters want to vote for him," Rogers says. He continues: "Kerrey scares me as a black hole, as Ronald Reagan did, and as the prospect of Gary Hart's nomination scared me. There is a fragility in the Kerrey persona, and if struck right, everything cracks." Even supporters admit that Kerrey's unpredictability can be troubling. After his first term as governor, for example, Kerrey suddenly announced that he would not seek reelection, despite approval ratings of about 70 percent. For a while, it seemed that his political career was over.
Learned on the job Sittig insists, however, that Kerrey's so-called unpredictability can be explained. Prior to seeking the governorship, Kerrey was "a very uninvolved young professional [restaurateur] who somehow became politicized," Sittig observes. Without long experience in politics, Kerrey had not shaped his own personal political agenda. "As a result, he got catapulted into office kind of unexpectedly, and he didn't have a program or an agenda to work with." Then came the recession, and Kerrey found himself handcuffed, unable to launch the kind of new-idea programs he preferred. Nor does Sittig buy Rogers's assertion that if one "pulled a pin," as Rogers puts it, Kerrey might suddenly deflate. That description might have fit at one time, when he was still recovering from his Vietnam experience. But Kerrey has gained maturity and stability in the governorship and the US Senate, and appears to be on solid ground. The presidential campaign just getting under way could be the best test of that. And Kerrey is getting off to a quick start, with forays this week into Colorado, Iowa, South Dakota, and New Hampshire.
Born: Joseph Robert Kerrey, Lincoln, Neb.
Education: Lincoln Northeast High School; degree in pharmacy, Univ. of Nebraska at Lincoln
Military Service: Enlisted in United States Navy in 1966; served on Navy SEAL special forces unit in Vietnam; Medal of Honor recipient, 1970
Professional Career: Pharmacist; private businesses ventures; taught at Univ. of California at Santa Barbara and high school in Omaha, Neb.
Political Career: Nebraska governor, 1983-87; US senator, 1988-present
Legislative Interests: Trade policy, the federal budget deficit, education, agriculture
Marital Status: Divorced, with two children