The other day at Memorial High School, a student asked Bob Kerrey how it would feel to spend months running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and then lose.
Such a question would hardly have occurred to Senator Kerrey's enthusiastic supporters a few months ago. Kerrey - young, telegenic, a former governor of Nebraska, a Medal of Honor winner in the Vietnam War - seemed to have all the credentials to be a front-runner in the Democratic race. Experts agreed: He had star quality.
Yet with one week left in the New Hampshire primary, Kerrey lingers in the middle of the polls - ahead of Sen. Tom Harkin and former Gov. Jerry Brown, but well behind Gov. Bill Clinton and the fast-rising former senator from Massachusetts, Paul Tsongas.
What went wrong? And is there time to fix it?
The senator insists: "It's wide open." He told an interviewer on Sunday: "There are a lot of people in New Hampshire, at least a majority, who have not made up their minds."
But the hour clearly is growing late. Three problems appear to be dogging Kerrey's campaign. One is political. One is personal. And one may be out of his control.
The political problem relates to issues. Kerrey came into New Hampshire with one urgent plan on his agenda: national health care.
His TV commercials harped on health care. In debates, he seemed to answer every question with "health care." He admits that many people now regard him as a Johnny-One-Note.
David Moore, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire at Durham, says that of all the issues of the 1992 campaign - health care, economy, unemployment, crime, and education overwhelmingly the most important is the economy."
Two candidates have focused most heavily on that issue, Governor Clinton and Mr. Tsongas. And they are dominating the polls.
"I think Kerrey got caught short by the economic issue by not preparing some plan or response that focused on the major concern of the voters," Dr. Moore says. New television ads
Kerrey's latest TV ads, with a new focus on the economy, are now trying to change that perception.
The second problem was personal. Kerrey is often described as introspective. That isn't inherently a bad quality, but it can make it difficult to conduct a presidential campaign in a personal way as they do in New Hampshire.
A leading Democrat, who asked not to be named, contrasts Kerrey's style with that of Clinton, the favorite here: "Clinton is extremely polished" with audiences, he says, while "Kerrey is distant even in small groups, and even in his TV ads. There is no strong connection with people."
Laurence Radway, a professor emeritus of government at Dartmouth College and former state Democratic chairman, seriously considered supporting Kerrey. But he says: "Kerrey is too private, too introverted, without enough outreach."
Kerrey's final problem is his competition. Dr. Radway, like many Democrats here, is desperately looking for someone who can whip George Bush, and he thinks Clinton looks the most promising. That view is widely held.
As one woman in Merrimack put it over the weekend: "Clinton's the one who could give Bush a run for his money."
Those who know Kerrey best fret about his problems here, and suggest New Hampshire residents may be underestimating him. Bob Sittig, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, is well-acquainted with Kerrey, admires many of his qualities, and says that if he loses in New Hampshire, it should not be seen as a slap at the senator. Winner not easy to pick
Dr. Sittig compares the primary here to "a six or eight-lane interstate highway converging to one lane. There's no assurance who will prevail." Unfortunately, he says, "a lot of good folks will fall by the wayside."
Pollster Moore agrees. He says Kerrey "gets high favorability ratings from people, but so do Harkin, Tsongas, and Clinton. So voters are not rejecting any of the four."
Though Clinton and Tsongas seem to attract larger crowds, Kerrey still packs them in, as he did at Memorial High. Many students had to be turned away at a Kerrey meeting when the crowd far exceeded expectations. Economy get top billing
As students filled all the seats and lined the walls, the senator spelled out a four-part plan for America. Almost as if he had listened to his critics, he put economic solutions at the top of the list:
1. Industrial development. The nation needs to focus on technologies that will lead to high-paying jobs. There is a need for "selfless" politicians who will help the country make future-oriented investments which may not immediately pay off, he says.
2. National health insurance. This is "crucial for me personally," says Kerrey, who lost a leg in the Vietnam War. Any plan should have two goals: to control costs, and to remove all uncertainty for people who need care but cannot afford it.
3. Environmental protection. The president has "taken a dive" on the environment, Kerrey says. Mr. Bush "has pretended" to care about the environment, but Americans are living today on "a rising pile of garbage." Energy efficiency is an important part of Kerrey's plans to protect the environment, including higher mileage standards for cars.
4. Choice for women. Women who want abortions should get them without interference by the government, Kerrey says.
To expand the middle class, his presidency would also put stronger emphasis on child care, education, and economic opportunity for all.