For Democratic bigwigs, increasingly worried about the dearth of serious contenders for their party's 1992 Presidential nomination, it's casting-call time. Party elders are sizing up Nebraska's junior senator, Robert Kerrey. And Kerrey, a prairie populist with an earnest demeanor and matinee-idol looks, is openly flirting with the idea of running.

Kerrey, 47, was elected to the Senate in 1988 and quickly won notice with his acid wit, heartfelt speeches on education reform, and attacks on Republican foreign policy. Although Nebraska is a conservative stronghold, the home folks give the liberal ex-governor a 70% approval rating.

But Kerrey is little-known nationally and lacks identification with any major issue. He's working on that. Next month, he'll propose a splashy new plan to provide health insurance to all Americans. Kerrey is on the road almost every weekend, giving Democratic activists a taste of his specialty: compassion on wry.

ENTREPRENEUR. Admirers say Kerrey's Vietnam War exploits, rugged profile, and idealism evoke memories of John F. Kennedy. But the senator's model--in politics, not lifestyle--is former Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.). Kerrey admires Hart's iconoclastic search for "new ideas." The Nebraskan has also tapped the Hart network. Former top Hart adviser William H. Shore is Kerrey's staff chief, and former Hart aide Jeremy D. Rosner is helping fine-tune Kerrey's speeches. "If Mario Cuomo is the great hope of the Mondale wing of the party, Kerrey is the great hope of the Gary Hart wing," says political analyst William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute.

To many Democrats, Kerrey is a dream come true. He's both an entrepreneur and an articulate spokesman for activist government. Kerry is a millionaire restaurateur and health club owner. He even has a bit of Hollywood glamour, thanks to an off-and-on romance with actress Debra Winger.

The senator speaks movingly of his Vietnam experience. He lost part of a leg while running a 1969 secret operation as a Navy SEAL, then spent nine months in a naval hospital. "Medical benefits, educational assistance, and income support enabled me to put my life back together again," he says, "not tax credits or deductions or enterprise zones."

But Kerrey has a problem. Last summer, he declared that "U. S. soldiers should not die in Saudi Arabia's desert just for cheap gasoline." And in January, he opposed authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Kerrey's backers hope that his Congressional Medal of Honor will shield him from GOP attacks.

READ HIS LIPS. Like most Democrats, Kerrey is trying to change the subject to domestic issues. He hopes his health plan will do the trick. The proposal, based loosely on Canada's system, would guarantee coverage regardless of employment or income. States would manage health plans, but the federal government would pay the bills. How would Kerrey pay for all this? Read his lips--new taxes.

By combining the explosive issues of health care and taxes, Kerrey has picked a risky way to make his reputation. Already, his stance is costing him some support at home. Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co., Nebraska's largest private employer, hates the idea and is working with Democratic Governor E. Benjamin Nelson to come up with an alternative. And Kerrey's ideas may go too far for his Senate colleagues. "I want something doable," says Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.).

Are the Democrats ready for Bob Kerrey in 1992? Stranger things have happened, especially when you realize that the party's most active candidates right now are George McGovern and a Greek-American from Massachusetts, former Senator Paul Tsongas, who styles himself a "pro-business liberal."

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