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Kerrey strains to sharpen his image late in N.H. race


NASHUA, N.H. -- At a news conference outside City Hall here the other day, Sen. Bob Kerrey excoriated President Bush and "the old men and old money that surround him."

An hour or so later, speaking to students at Hesser College in Manchester, Mr. Kerrey said that the nation "can no longer afford the old indifference of George Bush, the old ideas of George Bush and the old men of old money that surround him."

In the back of the gymnasium a Kerrey strategist was telling reporters that the lines about "old men" and "old money" were going to be a regular part of the Nebraska Democrat's litany for the rest of the New Hampshire primary campaign. The "generation issue" was back.

There is some obvious political logic in the 48-year-old Vietnam War hero using the issue of generational change against a 67-year-old president who showed his mettle in World War II. But the problem for Mr. Kerrey is that he was returning to an issue he used earlier in the campaign with less than a week left to reach the 125,000 New Hampshire Democrats who will vote in the primary Tuesday.

Meanwhile, he has presented himself variously as the candidate preoccupied by the need for national health insurance, the one who would get tough with Japan on trade, the champion of radical economic change and the one Democrat in the field with experience in business as well as both state and federal politics. To say that Bob Kerrey has had a message problem is an understatement.

The result is that Mr. Kerrey is approaching the final weekend of the campaign without yet having projected a sharp image of himself.

If you ask him if he intends to start trying to attack some of his rivals, he replies candidly: "I don't think I can go after anybody. They still don't know who I am." That his strategists agree is evident in the fact they are still running television commercials focusing on his biography.

The problems with this timing are obvious. As Mr. Kerrey himself puts it, "the water is getting very muddy." The television screens are cluttered with commercials, and the news coverage has been skewed away from the other candidates by the controversies involving Gov. Bill Clinton and the sudden rise of former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas. His efforts to break through, Mr. Kerrey acknowledges, "have been eclipsed a little bit in the last couple of weeks."

Mr. Kerrey accepts the situation with good humor. If you suggest needed more time and fewer distractions to reach voters here, he shrugs: "You play the cards you're dealt. . . . In the end I'm asking to lead the country. I have to persuade them I can do that."

The immediate problem for the Nebraska Democrat is to run ahead of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and well enough to be judged a survivor of the vote Tuesday. That might be achieved with as little as 15 percent to 20 percent of the vote if that were enough for third place.

The Kerrey campaign is already running commercials in South Dakota, where a primary is scheduled Feb. 25, and putting together organizational frameworks in several states with primaries March 3 and March 10.

But the imperative for Mr. Kerrey is enough of a showing here to be credible Wednesday. Polls now generally show Mr. Kerrey running third, well behind Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Clinton and only marginally ahead of Mr. Harkin. There is also some polling that indicates the write-in for Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York could be enough to put him ahead of both Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin, a result that would be obviously embarrassing to either.

Mr. Kerrey inspired high hopes in his supporters when he entered the campaign last fall. And he succeeded in enlisting some of the most able political professionals in New Hampshire and the Democratic Party nationally. The Nebraska senator came onto the scene as a politician with a reputation as a charismatic campaigner who would remind voters of a Kennedy.

tTC But Mr. Kerrey has never been able to distill a message clear to the electorate. And going into the home stretch, he is still changing themes.

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