He was elected to Congress that year to represent the most prosperous swath of what is known as New York's Niagara Frontier, near Buffalo. But early on, he set his sights on higher office.
In July 1980, he made a run for the Republican vice presidential nomination, positioning himself as the logical conservative successor to Reagan, the party's presidential nominee. But Reagan rejected Kemp as his running mate in favor of Bush.
In 1987 and 1988, Kemp ran what quickly became a disastrous campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. He never succeeded in presenting himself as an alternative to Dole or Bush, the two leading candidates.
Kemp's wife, Joanne, with whom he has four children, confided at the time: "It just may be he's not ready to be president yet."
In a just-published political memoir, veteran Republican operative Edward J. Rollins, who was then Kemp's senior strategist, wrote that after 18 years in Congress--and only one tough race, his first--"Jack wasn't prepared for what goes on in a presidential campaign."
He continued: "Jack was a totally unmanageable candidate. We're dear friends today, but he was a total pain in the ass in that campaign. He was impossible to discipline and simply wouldn't listen. He loved making speeches and relished the intellectual combat of candidate forums and debates. He had a magic with crowds. But he fought all of us tooth-and-nail over the rest of the crap a candidate has to put himself--and his family--through to get elected."
Frustrated by Kemp's preference for delivering long-winded speeches using big words and touting equally grand--and critics say unfounded--ideas, Rollins recalled twitting him: "If I could remove two-thirds of your knowledge and three-fourths of your vocabulary, I could make you into a decent candidate."
During the 1988 race, Kemp learned the difficulty of a presidential campaign. But in the offices of the secretary of Housing and Urban Development--a Cabinet department that sits distant from the White House in both geography and political power--he learned anew, a generation after his football days, the rigors of team play.
Still, he has long set himself apart from the dogma of conventional conservatism.
"The [Republican] party is coming dangerously close to being portrayed as [though] all we want is little government and big prisons," he said in 1994.
He added, in typical Kemp-speak: "If conservatives believe that government can cause problems by incentivizing the wrong thing, why don't they believe that government can reverse its policies and encourage productive human behavior . . . [such as] families and work and saving? We are great as conservatives saying how bad government is. Why can't government do the right thing?"
He has been single-minded and passionate in pushing homeownership for the poor--despite what critics say are impracticalities.
"He gets an idea in his head and doesn't want to be bothered with information or the facts about whether it will work," said a senior U.S. official who worked for Kemp in the Bush administration.
Vic Gold, a Washington writer, knows the travails of vice presidential candidates. He worked for Spiro T. Agnew, elected in 1968 with Richard Nixon, and for Bush.
The candidate, he said, is being asked each day whether he agrees with the latest pronouncements from the top of the ticket.
Bush, as vice president and president, Gold said, knew that "no president needs a vice president to be looking over his shoulder."
"For Jack Kemp, it's impossible," Gold said. "The guy can't restrain himself."
Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein in San Diego, Robin Wright in Washington, Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles and researcher Maloy Moore in San Diego contributed to this story.
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Longtime Political Force
Background on possible vice presidential pick Jack Kemp:
AGE: 61 (born in Los Angeles on July 13, 1935)
EDUCATION: Graduate of Fairfax High School and Occidental College (physical education degree).
ATHLETIC CAREER: Cut by six teams over three years before playing quarterback for the San Diego Chargers in the new American Football League in 1960. Traded to Buffalo Bills in 1962, led team to two AFL titles. Retired in 1970.
POLITICAL CAREER: Elected to Buffalo-area House seat in 1970, gave it up for failed run for president in 1988. In Congress, emerged as leading advocate of supply-side economics. Secretary of housing and urban development in Bush administration. Co-founder of Enpower America, a conservative policy group.
* Nationally established figure with strong following in GOP
* Passionate advocate for type of sweeping tax cut Dole has embraced
* Thoroughly opposed to abortion, has generally moderate record on social issues that could attract independents
* Often undisciplined orator with tendency toward lengthy digressions
* Previous presidential run was unimpressive; must demonstrate commitment to rigors of national campaign
* Opposition to Proposition 187, California's anti-immigrant initiative, still rankles core GOP constituency here