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Despite Road Glitches, Kemp Keeps Grinding It Out on Campaign Trail

September 25, 1996|GEBE MARTINEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The football metaphors are getting old along the Republican campaign trail. But they still more than apply when describing Jack Kemp's political quandary.

This is a man of quarterback pedigree who is being asked to be Bob Dole's 300-pound blocker in a presidential campaign that polls show is behind with time running out.

Accustomed to launching tight spirals for big gains on and off the field--and being held accountable for his own mistakes--Kemp is being asked to conduct a grind-it-out strategy, working in a huddle where he's not calling the plays.

At his best, this self-proclaimed "bleeding-heart conservative" is a missionary in search of converts to the GOP message of tax cuts, equal economic opportunity and a higher moral virtue.

At the same time, though, a man of so much passion cannot disguise the bad days on the road. And as has been clear during his recent campaign trips, even the most charismatic messenger has trouble finding converts.

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The Lady P cruised down the Savannah River as a quartet strummed lazy folk tunes. Important Republican guests were gathered on the top deck, but Kemp's attention was drawn by an elderly black woman, Ruth Crawford, who wanted to talk about the tight budget at her Augusta, Ga., community center, which helps the poor.

Seated with her at a small table, Kemp pulled an envelope out of his pocket and jotted down some notes. He promised to find her some money.

A "Kemp moment" was about to occur.

He disembarked at an amphitheater where a GOP rally awaited him. He preached racial and ethnic equality to the mostly white Southern audience. The crowd saved its enthusiasm for his comments about the GOP's promised 15% cut in income tax rates or when he invoked the name of former President Reagan. But Kemp pressed on.

"I say to you today, with every ounce of energy that I have in my body, this campaign is not going to be like any campaign you have ever seen in your life," Kemp said.

He then pointed to Crawford, seated on stage, and called her a "real American hero." He asked her to march with him in the inaugural parade if he and Dole win the White House, and then he called on the audience to pull out their checkbooks and donate money to her center.

More than $1,700, including $100 from Kemp, was collected.

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Kemp has been campaigning tirelessly, displaying all the energy he can muster, even when events are not well-attended or are just poorly planned.

One glitch occurred Monday, when he gave a speech at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio. The site was chosen because the campaign staff believed that was where President Clinton launched his failed health care reform bill three years ago. But it wasn't. Kemp still did well. At times, though, he simply misses his mark.

Before a group of public housing residents at Hurt Village in Memphis, Tenn., an audience that had to be rounded up by campaign aides, Kemp didn't just talk about helping low-income dwellers climb out of poverty. He went on to call for the complete elimination of the capital-gains tax for those with low incomes.

The capital-gains tax, an issue generally associated with the affluent, is not the most pressing issue at Hurt Village.

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Bill Clinton is known for saying he feels the pain of voters. Kemp sees their color and tries to speak the language.

"Hasta luego," Kemp said, ending a speech before a mostly ethnic group of assembly-line workers at a New Jersey glass-manufacturing plant.

For years, Kemp has courted Latino and black voters when other Republicans wouldn't. So it seemed natural for an ebullient black woman in Macon, Ga., to proclaim him an "official soul brother." Kemp replied: "Thank you, girl!"

At a Harlem soul food restaurant, he held up a dollar bill and declared: "This is the color of the new civil rights revolution for everybody: green."

Kemp listens to minorities, but can he really relate, wondered Keith Haywood, a New Orleans teacher who went to a forum featuring the candidate. "He didn't talk about why it is that when young blacks kill other blacks, they are not getting the stiff sentences like when a black kills a white."

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Kemp likes to talk with reporters--a trait that gives any campaign handler heartburn. But as he was reminded recently, Kemp, the politician/philosopher, can't say all that's on his mind.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Kemp praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's message of self-reliance and respect for families. Kemp even acknowledged his comments "might set off rockets," given Farrakhan's history of anti-Semitic comments.

Soon after, Kemp addressed the Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York.

"All of you here tonight and everyone in Israel who has ever known me know how strongly I abhor anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry," Kemp told the Jewish leaders, as he called on Farrakhan to renounce anti-Semitism.

A Kemp aide said there was immense faith within the GOP camp that the speech would bring "the rockets safely back home."

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