Bob Kerrey rises to top of the crop

The 1992 presidential campaign is now in full swing. It started with Saturday’s non-binding “beauty contest” in Florida, where Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the presumptive frontrunner, garnered 54% of the 2,000-plus convention delegates. Iowa Sen. Tom Harking came in second with 31%, followed by Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas.

The face-off continued on NBC on Sunday night – the first of seven nationally televised “debates” – where those four were joined by former California Gov. Jerry Brown and Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder. It was mostly skim milk, but Kerrey seemed to rise to the top.

But the winner of the first weekend may have been New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose probable candidacy hovered over the ensemble like Banquo’s ghost.

What was accomplished for the candidates?

Each candidate had a chance to tell us who he is. Tsongas and Clinton sent weak messages, coming across as thoughtful technocrats but still policy “wonks” with little soul.

Kerrey, Harkin, Tsongas and Wilder all painted themselves as “triumphant individuals,” people who have struggled against all kinds of odds to make it. Jerry Brown threw hand grenades.

Kerrey’s story is the most compelling. After losing part of a leg commanding a navy SEAL team in Vietnam, Kerrey became a self-made millionaire in the restaurant business in Nebraska. He was elected governor in 1982, but at the height of his popularity, stepped down after one term to go back to private life.

In 1988, he returned to public life, winning election to the Senate seat vacated by the death of Ed Zorinsky. Now, at 48 years old, he is a candidate for president. In the Cincinnatus tradition, he is a true citizen politician. And his experience as a commander in the military and in business sets him apart from the rest in a way that can work greatly to his advantage.

On the issues, each of the six opposed Bush’s performance on foreign and defense policy. Once again, Kerrey articulated the strongest vision: a new world order with different rules of the game.

Wilder and Harkin sounded “America first” protectionist themes, especially in their answers about the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The first debate makes clear that President Bush will not be home free on defense and foreign policy, an area where he was considered invulnerable just six months ago.

On economic policy, the Democrats have a lot to debate among themselves. Clinton, Tsongas and Kerrey advocated education, research and development and other familiar policies to make us more competitive. Harkin offers income redistribution and public works spending disguised as economic policy,

The candidates, unfortunately, are following, not leading the debate about how to restore America’s economic vitality in the 1990s.

So, next to Mario Cuomo, who probably benefited most by not being there, Bob Kerrey won Round 1. He showed himself to be authentic, thoughtful but not boring, engaged and experienced. Clinton clearly was hurt by a lackluster performance. Brown and Wilder are drop-out candidates.

After the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary early next year, the candidates move to Colorado and other Western states. This will give them a chance to address the manufacturing boom, public lands, natural resources and the environment, and other issues important to the West. It will also give the Nebraskan Bob Kerrey something of a home-field advantage. Let’s see what he can do with it.

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