WASHINGTON -- For a quarter-century, ever since he entered politics in his adopted home state of West Virginia, John D. Rockefeller IV has been touted as a presidential prospect.
"I kind of like the speculation," he teased an interviewer in 1981. "I don't deny the ambition."
But for years he chose to stay away from national politics, instead keeping his profile as low as possible for a U.S. senator who stands 6-foot-6 and has one of the world's most celebrated names.
But now, Mr. Rockefeller, whom everyone calls Jay, seems ready to fulfill those long-standing expectations. Within a month, he says, he'll decide whether to enter the 1992 Democratic presidential contest.
By most indications, he already has.
He's scouring the country for campaign staffers, consulting with political veterans and polishing his stump speech. He's basking in the publicity blitz from last month's report of a national children's commission he headed.
Right now he's in the midst of a 12-state, campaign-style tour that is taking him to Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois and New Jersey this weekend. He's using the trip to schmooze with Democratic politicians and gin up media attention for his involvement in children's issues, a hot topic in politics these days. Among the politically attractive proposals he's pushing is a $1,000 tax credit for every child in the nation.
Yesterday, in Lutherville, he held the first fund-raiser of his unannounced campaign. The event, at the home of Willie Runyon, president of American Ambulance and Oxygen Service, raised $40,000, according to Rockefeller aides, and made Maryland the first state in which Mr. Rockefeller has qualified for federal matching funds. (A candidate must raise $5,000, in donations of $250 or less, in 20 states in order to receive matching money.)
"I tell you, I like him . . . I'm impressed with Jay Rockefeller," Gov. William Donald Schaefer earlier told about 50 state Democratic officials, who seemed similarly impressed with what they heard from the senator during a breakfast reception at the Bethesda home of developer Nathan Landow, the state Democratic Party chairman.
Mr. Rockefeller, accompanied on his weekend swing by his daughter Valerie, 20, said he'd formally declare his candidacy around Labor Day, if he runs.
"You don't know me that well," he told state Democrats. "You'll get to know me better, hopefully, in the months ahead."
On the stump, Mr. Rockefeller exhibits a breezily informal, often self-deprecating manner. But he turns coldly critical when he speaks about President Bush and what he calls the administration's failure to confront a broad array of problem areas, from soaring health care costs to the savings and loan scandal to international competitiveness.
"He's intelligent. He's bright. Why does he do this to our country? Why does he neglect it so?" Mr. Rockefeller asks, as if the president, a fellow patrician politician, had betrayed his obligation to society.
Mr. Rockefeller, who lists his profession as "public service," says he has "become vastly more impatient with the pace of what is going on in America."
"That's what pushed me towards what I'm doing," he said in an interview the other day in his Washington office. "Why was it suddenly in the last two months? I have no magic answer. I just kind of burst out of the starting gate."
A sometimes-leaden public speaker who lacks seasoning as a national campaigner, Mr. Rockefeller may turn out to be the latest in a long line of Washington politicians who look good on paper but who flop when their candidacies are put to a voter test.
But the prospect of a Rockefeller presidential candidacy has some seasoned Democratic politicians salivating. In a party desperate for marketable contenders, he is certainly the flavor of the month, if not the season.
"Jay Rockefeller is a man with a passion for public service. Jay Rockefeller is a very decent man, a nice man, a very caring man and a sensitive man. He's one of the hardest-working members of the Senate. His whole life story -- how he chose to lead his life -- is most impressive. He's got a wonderful family. He's personally of the highest moral character and integrity and so forth," said Robert Farmer, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, who has advised Mr. Rockefeller on presidential campaign fund-raising.
The very name Rockefeller seems an antidote to the bashing Democratic nominees have taken in recent presidential elections for being too liberal, too much on the side of big government and too hostile to business. At a regional party caucus in Raleigh, N.C., last month, Mr. Rockefeller drew raves from Southern Democrats, who fear another electoral debacle if a Northern liberal like New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo is the nominee.
"Everyone was really impressed with him," said a Democratic Party aide. "What they haven't figured out is that he's really liberal, really liberal."
Mr. Rockefeller is a favorite of organized labor, and his rating last year from Americans for Democratic Action, a prominent liberal lobby group, was higher than any Southern senator's. But he says he's unconcerned that Mr. Bush might try to pin the "L" word on him, as Republicans did against Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee.
"If they want to call me a liberal, that's fine. I'll call them some things which they are, which I don't think are so fine," he says mildly. "I think it's time for the Reagan-Bush era to be called to accountability in front of the American people. And Dukakis didn't do it, he just didn't do it, and I think that's a great mistake."
His polls show that West Virginians regard him mainly as a moderate, Mr. Rockefeller says. "That's partly my name, partly my demeanor, partly my character, my nature, whatever that is."
His challenge if he runs, say other Democratic politicians, will be to define himself in similar terms for a national electorate that knows the name but nothing about the man.
Born 54 years ago in New York City and educated at Exeter and Harvard, he showed an early interest in Asian affairs (he speaks Japanese). But, inspired by the social activism of the Kennedy years, he moved to the impoverished coal town of Emmons, in the West Virginia mountains, as a VISTA volunteer in 1964.
"It wasn't high-flown public policy, but God almighty it was on the ground and powerful," he recalls, "carting kids 45 minutes in borrowed jeeps to get dental attention 10 years too late in a high school somewhere in Charleston, W.Va."
In 1966, having changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democratic, he started climbing the political ladder. He served one term in the state legislature and as secretary of state before eventually winning election twice as governor in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Unapologetic about his inherited wealth (his share of the fortune founded by his oil-rich namesake has been estimated at $150 million to $200 million), he poured more than $25 million of it into his campaigns over the years. When he won election to the Senate in 1984, he bought a $6.5 million Washington mansion, the highest price ever for a residential property in the city.
Aware that his money is also a potential liability, Mr. Rockefeller tries to defuse the issue with humor. He says, using a line borrowed from his late uncle, Nelson, the New York governor and Republican vice president, that as a child "I enjoyed playing with blocks. . . . I played with 42nd Street, 43rd Street and Madison Avenue."
His decision on whether to run, he says, will depend largely on family concerns, including the effect it would have on his four children, who range in age from 12 to 22, and the career of his wife, Sharon. Mrs. Rockefeller, the daughter of former Illinois Republican Sen. Charles H. Percy, is currently president of WETA, the public broadcasting station in the Washington, D.C., area.
"I am incredibly tenacious by nature and competitive, and so the question would be to have the resources to back all that up and then to intelligently and skillfully as a surgeon to go about winning the primary, and if that's successful then the White House," Mr. Rockefeller says.
He catches himself, as though he'd somehow exposed an unseemly thirst for raw power. "I don't mean to be quite so bald as that," he says, apologetically, "but that's exactly what I look at as the challenge."