SAN DIEGO -- Jack Kemp was speaking before the New York delegation yesterday morning, talking in cosmic terms about the renewal of American culture, when someone slipped him a note saying it was time for Bob Dole to be introduced.
The recently named No. 2 man on the Republican ticket halted his speech in mock annoyance. "Here I am at the moment of critical mass. Who's that guy who used to come out and tell jokes before Frank Sinatra sang?"
Recognizing himself as a similar warm-up act, he jokingly grimaced, suggesting that he had not quite come to terms with second billing.
"But I'll get used to it," he sighed as the audience roared.
As Kemp sets out on his new career as Dole's running mate, the kinetic, loquacious and often impetuous politician is struggling to curb his natural tendency to speak his mind, however impolitic, and seize the spotlight.
Kemp is dutifully toeing the line. He is singing the praises of Dole -- a man with whom he has sparred in the past, especially when both sought the presidential nomination in 1988 -- and doing his best to play down their past differences and stay focused on the Republican message.
The former Cabinet secretary, congressman from New York and professional quarterback says he is adapting easily to his new back-seat role. In interviews this week, he has said that, as a former football player, he knows how to be a team player. But those who know Kemp aren't convinced.
"I give him three weeks," said political scholar Norman Ornstein, who was in the audience yesterday, predicting that it wouldn't be long before Kemp began articulating his own ideas.
"He has always had a problem being disciplined that way. It's going to continue to be a problem. He brings a lot to the ticket that almost nobody else could bring. He gives the activist core [of the Republican Party] a reason to get up in the morning, but it's fraught with peril."
Kemp's verbosity has become the subject of numerous jokes in San Diego over the past few days.
In last night's keynote speech, Rep. Susan Molinari of New York said she had called Kemp for some advice on what she should say. "And he gave me a few suggestions," she said. "In fact, he's still giving them to me. I had to put him on hold so I could come out here and make this speech right now. I'll get right back to you, Jack."
Indeed, at yesterday's appearance together, Kemp spoke about twice as long as Dole did. But Republicans hope that Kemp's spirit on the campaign trail will add new life to Dole's campaign appearances.
Taking a page from the successful Clinton/Gore campaign book, Dole said yesterday that he and Kemp would sweep the country together after the convention.
"I think we were dead in the water, and our people were starting to get disheartened," Texas Republican Chairman Tom Pauken said. When Kemp was added to the ticket, he said, "It was like a light switch was flipped."
And yesterday, two days before he will try to stick to the 7 1/2 minutes he has been given for an acceptance speech -- Kemp was in fine form.
Kemp called Dole "the first lion of the 21st century" and the Republicans the party of "Lincoln, Reagan and Dole." He said Dole would "restore the type of leadership on which the American people have always depended from the Republican Party."
A self-described "bleeding heart conservative" who has championed the plight of minority and urban America, including support for affirmative action, he repeated the themes of opportunity for all Americans and "inclusion" that Colin L. Powell sounded from the podium Monday night.
"Weren't you proud, weren't you exhilarated to see an African-American -- living hero -- stand up and say how proud he was to be a Republican?" he asked the crowd. "That was a defining moment."
Kemp has said this week that he will not take on the role of "attack dog" as some vice presidential candidates -- namely, Dole, who as Gerald Ford's running mate sniped at the Democrats in 1976 -- have done. And his performance yesterday reinforced that declaration.
"This campaign is not about what we're against," he told his audience packed in a ballroom in the Hotel Del Coronado. "It's about what we're for."
As someone who has been in the No. 2 slot, former Vice President Dan Quayle, said yesterday that as long as Kemp remembers that this campaign is about Dole and channels his effusiveness "in the direction of advancing Bob Dole's agenda," the Dole-Kemp ticket won't self-destruct.
But, on CNN yesterday, Quayle said he spoke to Kemp on Monday. "I told him he is going to frustrated. No. 2 is not as much fun as No. 1."
Pub Date: 8/14/96