Kemp's team play hikes his chance to call the GOP signals next time


APPLE VALLEY, Calif. -- Jack Kemp, the old quarterback who volunteered to run as blocking back for Bob Dole, stands on an outdoor podium shuffling a football from hand to hand.

Once introduced to the crowd, he looks over it in search of an old teammate at Occidental College, where he played before joining the San Diego Chargers. "I just wanted to throw him one more for The Gipper," Mr. Kemp says.

Not finding his old buddy, he introduces his wife Joanne as "the only mother of three professional quarterbacks in the history of America" -- not quite accurate; she's the wife of one and the mother of two others, sons Jeff and Jimmy. Whatever.

Mr. Kemp talks about his transition from professional football to Congress, then suddenly takes off his suit jacket. "I can't stand here with this football in my hands," he says, "and not throw it." He lofts a spiral about 20 yards into the crowd, where two eager hands grab it. The crowd cheers.

Mr. Kemp observes that "when you go into a huddle," a man's color or ethnic background don't matter: All have one goal. He limns the virtues of team play in a racially and ethnically diverse society. He segues easily into an assault on what he calls Bill Clinton's politics of "fear" -- that a Dole presidency would cut VTC Head Start, college loans and environmental protection -- and then into his standard pitch for Mr. Dole's 15 percent tax cut.

It's like a no-huddle offense as Mr. Kemp the signal-caller spews out his well-practiced spiel for "entrepreneurial capitalism," scarcely pausing to catch his breath -- a conspicuous contrast to Mr. Dole's usual disjointed stump recitation of the same tax plan. Mr. Kemp doesn't need the play written on the back of his hand, as the senator often seems to. He can execute it blindfolded -- not surprising since he is a longtime true believer compared to Mr. Dole, a late convert to tax cuts over deficit-slashing.

But if Mr. Kemp delivers the message better, and often sounds as if he is the presidential nominee rather than only Senator Dole's backup, he largely adheres to his pledge to be the blocking back. The only notable occasion when he could be accused to getting off the reservation was his recent criticism of Speaker Newt Gingrich for having closed down the government twice in 1995 -- a view that Mr. Dole himself likely shares but leaves unspoken.

Fourth and long

With the Dole-Kemp campaign badly trailing late in the fourth quarter of the campaign, Mr. Kemp keeps up a good front, telling the crowd "We're going to move this country into the 21st century, and we're not going to leave anyone behind."

He says nothing of his own political plans if, as expected, the Republican ticket loses Tuesday. But of course speculation remains that, having loyally played blocking back for Mr. Dole this fall, Mr. Kemp will try out for quarterback of the Republicans in 2000. He declined to do so at the start of this cycle and says now he could not have unified the party then as Senator Dole has.

But according to one intimate, Mr. Kemp's more than two months as running mate, flying around the country in a comfortable, well-stocked jet, staying in first-class hotels and having the way always greased for him by the Secret Service and an advance team, has been instructive. "You find out, yeah, I can do that," this insider says.

So if the fire in Mr. Kemp's belly had almost gone out, it may be smoldering again. He suffered some criticism for his uneven debate with Vice President Al Gore. But he has become much better known around the country and can't be blamed if the Republican ticket goes under as badly as now predicted.

Other losing running mates have graduated to become presidential nominees -- Mr. Dole himself, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey. Just running for vice president has become a steppingstone. While Jack Kemp may not be the odds-on choice of his party for 2000, as Mr. Gore seems to be for the Democrats, he's placed himself on the early short list by playing blocking back, in the face of widespread doubts that the old quarterback could settle for a supporting role.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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