Dole’s VP choice lifts hopes of Republicans

By our reckoning, no presidential candidate in recent history has had as much riding on his selection of a running mate. Republican stalwart Bob Dole — dogged continually by concerns about his age (73) and apparent lack of personality — was in dire need of a walking polar opposite, a candidate who was strong where he was weak, popular where he was not. In choosing Jack Kemp, former congressman and housing secretary in the George Bush administration, he got it. Kemp, 61, is a vibrant, enthusiastic campaigner and public speaker, and is a sure bet to tighten up the race for the White House. Kemp, once a quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers, is widely held as an independent, principled politician, not easily swayed by the ever-shifting tide of public opinion. The football cliches are already growing tired, but in Kemp’s case, they seem somewhat appropriate. He has repeatedly proven tough under fire, and he presents Democratic strategists with their toughest challenge yet. However, in this age of intense deliberation about social issues — abortion in particular — Kemp’s historically close attention to fiscal concerns seems to make him an odd man out. But with the favorable public reaction to Dole’s economic proposal last week — calling for a 15 percent across-the-board income tax cut and a 50 percent reduction in capital gains taxes — Kemp’s name went to the top of the vice presidential short list. Kemp has long supported tax cuts, and even endorsed flat-tax-chanting Steve Forbes earlier in the presidential campaign. Will Dole’s decision to bring Kemp on board wrap up the election? Not yet. Recent polls still show President Clinton with a lead of somewhere between 15 and 25 percent, and his popularity ratings are stable. But Kemp’s political clout, said one senior Dole aide, is unique. Dole is able to campaign in “California, the industrial Midwest, the South,” he said. “You don’t get many politicians who can do that.” Moreover, the record-breaking fund-raising coffers will open once Dole is officially named as the Republican candidate, and a successful convention could give Dole a much-needed boost. If the Dole camp can find a way to ride the wave of excitement surrounding Kemp until election time, the looming concerns about Dole will soon seem irrelevant. But regardless of the vice president’s “heartbeat away” status, voters historically concentrate more on the presidential candidate — and rightfully so. Vice presidents themselves tend to agree; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second-in-command for two terms, John Nance Garner, said the office wasn’t worth “a bucket of warm spit.” While Kemp can do a lot to sing the praises of a potential Dole administration, Dole himself will be “calling the signals,” and the chances for Republican success in November rest solely on his shoulders. Unless Dole can convince the American public that he has the ability to lead the country into the next millennium, the 1996 campaign will be remembered not for a last-minute Republican comeback, but for a strong Democratic defense.