Kerrey Won't Challenge Gore for Democratic Nomination
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 1998; Page A4
OMAHA, Dec. 13—Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) chose the course of prudence Sunday and announced he would run for reelection in 2000, rather than challenge Vice President Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The decision, disclosed at a news conference here after a weekend of closed-door discussions with supporters from Nebraska and around the nation, disappointed but did not surprise many of the hundreds who met with Kerrey.
It removes one potentially serious challenger from Gore's path to the nomination, but Sen. Paul D. Wellstone of Minnesota and former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey have taken preliminary steps toward running, and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri are still weighing the possibility.
But Kerrey, who has challenged Clinton administration policy on several key domestic and international issues, was viewed as someone who could raise the funds for a national campaign and perhaps pose a test for Gore in the leadoff caucuses in Iowa.
Kerrey said that the formidable support Gore enjoys as the administration candidate for the nomination was "a factor" in his decision "but not the dominant reason."
However, during a private session yesterday, he told supporters that he thought no sitting vice president who sought his party's nomination had been rejected, forgetting that Vice President Alben Barkley had been blocked at the 1952 Democratic National Convention because of his age.
Kerrey, according to participants, also talked about the influence first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton could have with loyal Democrats if, as expected, she campaigned for Gore in the primaries of 2000.
The task of raising the millions of dollars needed to compete for the nomination was formidable but not insurmountable, those who met with Kerrey said. Ben Barnes, the former Texas lieutenant governor, said he challenged the leaders of BACK-PAC, Kerrey's personal political action committee, to consider how much each of them would commit to raise of the $30 million to $35 million Barnes said Kerrey would need between now and the Democratic convention in 2000.
On the other hand, many of those out-of-state operatives and fund-raisers said they gave Kerrey encouraging words about his campaign prospects in their states. Theodore C. Sorensen, a Nebraska native who helped John F. Kennedy win the presidency, was reported to have told Kerrey that if Kennedy had heeded the voices of caution, he would not have run in 1960.
The 55-year-old senator, who completes his second term in two years, said he had decided he could provide more leadership on both state concerns and national issues by remaining where he was. Close colleagues in the Senate, who had predicted his decision, said they thought he preferred to spend the next year influencing decisions on Social Security and Medicare in Washington rather than organizing a presidential campaign.
Some also said Kerrey was not certain 2000 will be a good year for Democrats and preferred to focus any national ambitions on 2004, a year when he will not be up for reelection.
Kerrey said today that Nebraska law might have allowed him to run for the presidential nomination and seek reelection simultaneously in 2000, but he thought that would be "immoral." He was under some pressure to make an early decision from retiring Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson, who would have run for the Senate if Kerrey stepped aside.
While the decision to avoid challenging Gore was not unexpected, Kerrey orchestrated the announcement in his typically unconventional way. He assembled friends and supporters from Nebraska and elsewhere for a weekend of talk, even though he told reporters he had made up his mind weeks ago.
The centerpiece of the weekend was a half-day Saturday seminar on foreign trade issues, for which he recruited a notable array of speakers, including Omaha investment tycoon Warren Buffett, former secretary of labor Robert B. Reich, former budget director Franklin D. Raines and a dozen prominent academics.
"I can't believe he'd do all this if he was just going to run for reelection," one California guest said yesterday. But that surmise proved to be wrong.
Kerrey ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, but finished third in the New Hampshire primary, behind the late Paul E. Tsongas and Bill Clinton, with 11 percent of the vote. A week later, he won his only victory in South Dakota, but a week after that, he slumped to fourth place in Colorado, ran poorly in Georgia and Maryland, and, out of money, dropped out of the race.
Kerrey has acknowledged that he was ill-prepared for the 1992 race, but he laid the groundwork more carefully for the 2000 contest. He built a national fund-raising base in four years as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. BACK-PAC has had two staff members in New Hampshire since last summer.
At the same time Kerrey was tuning up his political operation, he broadened his issue base far beyond the plan for universal health insurance that was his main promise in 1992.
He was co-chairman of the bipartisan commission whose report led to overhaul of the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year. As chairman of a similar commission on entitlements, he has been prominent in the debate on reform of Social Security and Medicare. And last month, he offered a proposal for unilateral reduction in U.S. nuclear missiles that drew considerable attention.
Kerrey referred to all these issues in his withdrawal statement, saying that America must "choose the difficult path," rather than the "comfortable, familiar way" if the challenges of the new century are to be met. He promised to raise them in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2000 -- but not as a candidate.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company