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Sen. Bob Kerrey Drops Out of Democratic Presidential Race

By Jonathan Peterson
and Karen Tumulty

Los Angeles Times


Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, having run out of money after a series of primary defeats, called an end Thursday to a once-promising presidential campaign that never managed to kick into gear.

"I feel a little like the Jamaican bobsled team," said Kerrey, who had compared his third-place showing in New Hampshire to winning a bronze medal in the Olympics. "We had a lot of spirit, but unfortunately, we didn't get a lot of medals."

Kerrey added, however, that he had "gained a great deal" from an effort that often resembled a dress rehearsal, rather than an actual presidential campaign. He suggested that he might be willing to try again, possibly as early as 1996, if the Democrats did not win the White House this year.

"The cause that got me into this to begin with is still alive, and I feel a sense of purpose to participate in that cause. I've drawn a bead on the office of the president of the United States," he said at a Capitol Hill news conference attended by several of his Senate colleagues and dozens of cheering supporters. "The spark and the flame is still alive."

Many Democratic professionals continue to view the 48-year-old Kerrey as one of the Democrats' brightest presidential prospects, despite his lackluster showing in his first national campaign.

He is a Vietnam veteran who won the nation's highest decoration for bravery, as well as an entrepreneur who built a thriving restaurant and health club business from the ground up. After a single term as governor and half a term as a senator, the unabashedly liberal Kerrey enjoys a near-worshipful public approval rating in his heavily Republican home state.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic rival of whom Kerrey had been most critical during the campaign, said after Kerrey's withdrawal that the Nebraska senator "deserves an immense amount of credit" for bringing health care to the top of the Democrats' political agenda.

Paradoxically, even though Kerrey failed to win many votes, polls showed him with some of the highest favorable and lowest negative ratings of any of the Democratic contenders.

But the campaign -- only the third he had ever attempted -- also exposed some vulnerabilities that had not been apparent when he ran for election in Nebraska.

As Mike McCurry, a Kerrey adviser, put it: "He's now got a lot of appreciation for the difference between a national campaign and a campaign for senator or governor. ... Bob Kerrey's going to be back. He's learned from this campaign how to be ready for that moment."

Kerrey failed to convey a compelling national message in a brief period of time, a challenge especially hard for a politician little known outside his home state. And at times, Kerrey also acted impulsively, juggling his themes and advisers early on in a manner that seemed haphazard, compared to rivals who had painstakingly developed their plans of attack.

Kerrey's decision to enter the race last September was a late and impulsive one. "He didn't catch his stride until it was a little too late, said Bob Burkett, a prominent Los Angeles fund-raiser who was Kerrey's national finance chairman.

Although Kerrey's performance on the stump had improved markedly in recent weeks, his strategists now believe that the campaign's fate was sealed when he finished a distant third in New Hampshire, behind former Sen. Paul Tsongas and Clinton, separated by only a few percentage points from Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.

"Three points in New Hampshire could have made a tremendous difference," Burkett said.

Perhaps Kerrey's final chance to salvage his beleaguered campaign came immediately after his victory in the Feb. 25 South Dakota primary, when he briefly enjoyed a surge in attention. Kerrey used the moment to attack Clinton, warning that President Bush would open up the Arkansas governor like a "soft peanut" for his explanation of why he did not serve in Vietnam.

But the offensive was "ill-timed, ill-placed and ill-funded," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, contending that Kerrey would have been better off using the attention to strengthen his own identity.

Kerrey Thursday said his comments about Clinton's electability were merely "political hyperbole," and he pledged to work feverishly for the candidate who becomes the party's eventual nominee.