WASHINGTON — Washington - ALMOST FROM the day he arrived here only two and a half years ago Bob Kerrey has been on everyone's "short list" of theoretically nifty Democratic Party nominees for vice president. The fact that he apparently intends to run for president next year -and more to the point will be taken seriously if he does - speaks volumes about the state of the party .
On the face of it,the 48 year-old senator from Nebraska has political credentials at least as credible as his likely rivals for the presidential nomination -- Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. of California. Indeed, by most reckonings, Kerrey will become an immediate member of the "first tier" of Democratic candidates with Harkin and Clinton.
It is also true, however, that Kerrey's resume is thin enough so that there is serious doubt he would be in that first tier if there were alternatives such as Lloyd Bentsen, Richard Gephardt, Sam Nunn, Bill Bradley, Albert Gore or Mario Cuomo. In fact Kerrey, who served a single term as governor of a small state and is in just his third year in the Senate, has made no bones about his feeling that the weakness of the field is a prime factor in his own tentative decision to compete.
But the critical question is whether he can start from such a flimsy base this late in the game and run a successful campaign. In congenitally Republican Nebraska, Kerrey has been a political star with a reputation as a forceful and charismatic campaigner. He served one term in Lincoln, stepped down, then won his seat jTC in the Senate in 1988 by running 20 percent ahead of Michael S. Dukakis. Whether that history is preparation for the extraordinary pressures of a presidential campaign is another question.
Kerrey has some obvious assets. As a veteran of the war in Vietnam who lost his right leg and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, he has a thick layer of insulation against any suggestions he might be soft on national security such as those used against Dukakis by candidate George Bush three years ago. It was those special credentials that allowed Kerrey to be so outspokenly critical of the war in the Persian Gulf and against Bush's attempt to promote a constitutional amendment to forbid flag-burning.
Kerrey also has made a reputation within the Senate as effective and knowledgeable not only on agricultural questions, a requirement for any Nebraska senator, but also on key domestic issues, such as health care, on which Bush is most vulnerable. He has been reliably liberal on the social questions such as abortion and civil rights that are most important to activist Democrats.
Kerrey also has laid some political foundations elsewhere. He is a particular favorite, for example, of Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston, current chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and has established a strong rapport with Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago. He already has been praised effusively by Mario Cuomo as just the kind of candidate he could support with enthusiasm.
Kerrey's liberal credentials are strong enough to cast him into a direct competition with Harkin, who has been testing his populist themes most of the summer, and the confrontation between the two probably would come in the New Hampshire primary campaign. Harkin already has begun to put together an operation in the state, but there are many other skilled operatives there ready to build a Kerrey campaign.
What is less apparent right now is the rationale for a Kerrey campaign. Dan Calegari, a street-smart New Hampshire Democrat who has been promoting a Kerrey candidacy for several months, says that the Nebraska senator has the potential to use the "generational theme" that Gary Hart employed so successfully there in 1984. Others believe Kerrey can present himself as the fresh voice for radical change away from politics as usual represented by the George Bushes and Dick Gephardts and Lloyd Bentsens.
But Kerrey will have little time to craft his message and strategy. And because the Democrats are seeking so desperately for a credible nominee, he will have to do so under intense scrutiny of both the press and his party. Running for vice president might have been the ideal preparation, but the way things are for the Democrats these days, you can move from the minor leagues to the World Series overnight.