A gust of wind blew away his speech text. But that didn't faze Jack Kemp a bit. Midway through a stemwinder about the need to spur growth with "fewer taxes, less regulation, and more innovation," the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee paused and told rapt Amgen Inc. employees at a Sept. 30 rally in Thousand Oaks, Calif.: "I don't need notes. I've been waiting a long time for a chance to say these things. They come from the marrow of my bones."
Kemp's warm reception in California's high-tech halls has been matched by applause in black neighborhoods and blue-collar suburbs. Trouble is, Kemp's boss, Bob Dole, needs a surge in the polls right now. As the ticket struggles, Kemp's "happy warrior" routine is raising eyebrows in some GOP quarters. A few critics wonder whether the beneficiary of Kemp's backfield scrambling is Dole--or a once and future Presidential candidate named Kemp.
Kemp is careful to stay scrupulously loyal. "I will make a great blocking back for Bob Dole," the ex-quarterback tells audiences. But a second fiddle he's not. Kemp has been granted license to say and do what he thinks--within some limits. The strategy is to build enthusiasm for the ticket. But the result is that Kemp is free to build his GOP base. "He's a peer, not an understudy, to Dole," effuses one senior Kemp aide.
This never was a marriage made in supply-side heaven. Although Kemp wins kudos from the Beltway pundits he has cultivated over the years, there is scant evidence that his "hope, growth, and opportunity" shtick helps sell the dour Dole to voters. And GOP snipers fault Kemp's refusal to launch character assaults on Bill Clinton. "We have a substantive message," says Campaign Manager Wayne Berman. "We don't need an attack dog." But Dole's own ability to slug Clinton is constrained by his reputation for meanness. "I remember the good old days when the Vice-Presidential nominee was the hatchet man," sniffs one Dole adviser.
Kemp has struggled to stay "on message" stumping for Dole's 15% tax cut. But he's clearly more enthused about a flat tax and abolishing inheritance levies and the capital-gains tax. Dole is cautious about all these ideas, associated more with Kemp's ideological soul mate, former Dole rival Steve Forbes.
Alternating visits between GOP enclaves and inner cities, Kemp is most animated when he's preaching his message of inclusion. Visiting a magnet school for black and Hispanic children in East Palo Alto, Calif., he evokes Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson: "I want a country where hope is alive, not just talked about." But as the election nears, the time Kemp devotes to wooing minorities is bugging some conservatives. "I don't know what Jack is doing in Newark," gripes one Dole confidant. "In politics, you have to go where the votes are, and there aren't many [Dole votes] in the ghetto."
VISIONARY? Kemp has one more chance to prove his mettle: On Oct. 9 in St. Petersburg, Fla., he's scheduled to take on Vice-President Al Gore in a nationally televised debate. "It's a prime opportunity to make the case for Dole," says GOP analyst William Kristol. But even if Kemp shines in the face-off, Kristol disputes the notion that Kemp will suddenly leap to the head of the post-Dole pack of GOP hopefuls. "If Dole loses, the race starts over."
Despite such doubts, Kemp is confident he can talk rings around any who doubt his supply-side views. This certitude is endearing to voters--up to a point. "I like Jack Kemp; he's a visionary," says David C. Kostin, 33, in a typical reaction. But Kostin, an Amgen construction supervisor, says he's leaning toward Clinton. Sentiments like that might depress others. But not Jack Kemp, who may realize he had little to lose by joining Dole--and much to gain for a future Presidential run of his own.