HERE IS JACK FRENCH KEMP AT THE NESHOBA County Fair, a traditional summer hoedown for white Mississippi farmers and, more important, the very place where Ronald Reagan kicked off a campaign that put him in the highest office in the land. Congressman Kemp likes to think of himself as heir to that campaign, the obvious successor to Reagan.

On this late July afternoon, Kemp's black Bally loafers are covered with thick dust kicked up during a dry, oven-hot day of shaking hands, drinking lemonade and talking to the farm folk. He is dripping sweat, but his white shirt stays tight at the neck, his tie held firmly by a gold collar bar. His suit seems out of place among the overalls in the crowd, so Kemp throws the jacket to an aide and takes to the field like a winner, looking for questions to answer. No matter what topic he is asked about, he spits out a mini-speech that somehow twists back around to his favorite subject: the economy.

Kemp looks like a winner here. People are paying attention. His campaign speech -- often ridiculed as having too many big words and being too academic -- takes life and draws lots of applause. There are cheers when he says Congress should have stopped the Iran-contra hearings and investigated the liberals in Congress and the State Department who have done nothing to compare with Oliver North's bare-fisted fight against communism. The crowd buzzes when he says we need to build the president's "Star Wars" defense system and put it in space. "They say I'm a hawk, but I'm a dove, a heavily armed dove."

When the 52-year-old candidate says those who support the right to abortion don't understand that "people are not a burden, they are our greatest resource," folks in the back stand up, wave flags and whistle. There is genuine reverence in the audience when the born-again Christian speaks of God making America "the hope of the world -- and we should be all that God meant us to be."

When the pumping of arms and the preaching of politics is finally over, Kemp begins making his way to a waiting car. Then a football appears. The American Football League's most valuable player of 1965 clears a path and throws a few spirals -- beautiful spirals -- to barefooted Mississippi boys. It seems a good end to a day that has gone well, well enough that Jack Kemp feels like a winner again, the only feeling he can tolerate. Maybe the Neshoba fair will turn out to be as propitious an event for Kemp as it was for Ronald Reagan.

As he gets into the car, a confident Kemp asks an aide to get the results of the straw poll held at the fair. Kemp, his wife, his daughter and all of his campaign staffers had made sure to cast their votes -- for Kemp. The results are in the next day's newspaper: George Bush, who didn't even go to the fair, is the winner, with 40 percent of the vote. Kemp is a distant second with 24 percent. IF JACK KEMP COULD GET AHOLD OF 24 percent of anything in a real poll this fall, he would be a happier man. National polls show him garnering about 10 percent of Republican support, far behind not only Bush but Sen. Robert Dole. In some states -- like Michigan -- he even trails televangelist Pat Robertson. There are hints of deep flaws in his campaign: He has had difficulty raising money, most of it coming in small amounts from individual donors instead of from big-money Republicans; polling data shows he is most popular among affluent, well-educated voters instead of the middle class, where he had hoped to find his biggest support; in Iowa, the entire Kemp organization had to be rebuilt after the candidate failed to get a single vote in a straw poll of Cedar Rapids Republicans. In right-wing New Hampshire, The Manchester Union-Leader, which was thought to be a sure bet to endorse Kemp, has been giving rave reviews to former Delaware governor Pete du Pont. Gov. John Sununu, who has endorsed Bush, says, "Jack is working very, very hard in this state. The amazing thing is with all that effort he doesn't seem to be going anywhere."

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Although Jack Kemp is a cautious politician who has a history of not taking on opponents who have even a small chance of defeating him, he clearly saw himself winning the Republican nomination in 1988. There was Bush to contend with, for sure, but Kemp saw himself as the obvious, natural and rightful person to succeed Ronald Reagan -- and he began laying the groundwork for this campaign years ago.

First, he developed standing within the party. At the 1980 Republican convention, he was the right wing's choice for vice president and was hailed as the true conservative's crusader in Congress. At the 1984 convention, a quarter of the delegates identified themselves as supporters of Kemp for president in '88. It was Kemp who championed supply-side economics; Kemp who crafted the party's anti-tax, anti-ERA, anti-abortion platform; Kemp who hosted the largest party of the convention, a reception for 2,500 where guests wore buttons that read "Kemp 88."

Second, he won hearts and minds in the media. Even the liberal press has had good words for Kemp. In 1985 New York magazine called Kemp the "most fascinating politician on the scene" and a man "who turns people on." The same year, The Washington Monthly featured him on its cover, writing that he was on the verge of becoming the dominant figure in American politics because he "is talking about something which too many Democrats have come to look down their noses at -- individual aspiration and hope." In 1986 Kemp won Conservative Digest's poll on the 1988 race, beating Bush by 13 points.

Third, he attracted proven staff. Ed Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign, signed on as his campaign chairman. Roger Stone, who masterminded and won the Northeast and Midwest for Reagan, came on board as Kemp's political director.

And finally, Kemp had an idea for finding an entirely new constituency. He decided to appeal to blacks, women and blue-collar workers as well as to traditional Republicans. He would crack the liberal coalition of Democrats and fold an entirely new group of voters into the Republican Party.

So why is the campaign floundering? There are some obvious explanations: Kemp is a right-wing, Taft-Goldwater-Reagan Republican running for president at a time when the country's political pendulum is swinging to centrists; Kemp is something of a Johnny one-note candidate who can only speak well to economic issues; Kemp has been unable to convince Republican leaders to open the doors of their exclusive club to union members, blacks and other minorities.

But to really understand why Jack Kemp cannot win in '88, one has to think of him as still playing out his favorite role -- the great quarterback. (At home recently, Joanne Kemp made an offhand remark about her husband playing football in college. "I wasn't just a football player," Kemp broke in, "I was a quarterback.") The trouble with being a quarterback is the fear of losing. A quarterback who loses doesn't play. If he doesn't play, he ceases to exist. And to Kemp, this is not hyperbole -- he was traded or released five times in his football career, put on waivers for $100. Friends say he equates losing with death.

No part of Kemp's life is free from that fear. Barney Skladany, a lawyer for Mobil Oil who regularly plays tennis with Kemp, offers a typical example: "Once we were playing, and he hit a ball down the line. I returned it, but I fell getting to it and ran into the fence and the thorn bushes. I was cut up, dizzy and bleeding. Jack waited, hit the winner back across the net, and then he asked if I was okay."

Kemp's dread of losing has even been passed on to those closest to him. There are no losers in the Kemp family. The father and nine-term congressman has never lost a political race. (Some New York politicians believe it was fear of losing that kept Kemp from running against an aged and frail Jacob Javits, allowing the unknown Alfonse D'Amato to win the seat. The same fear, they believe, kept Kemp from challenging Mario Cuomo, who barely beat the unknown Lew Lehrman, for governor.) His older son, Jeff, is a National Football League quarterback. His younger son, Jimmy, is the starting quarterback at Churchill High School in Montgomery County. His older daughter, Jennifer, was undefeated in three years of high school tennis. When she asked for a car at 19, her father told her she would have to beat him on the tennis court to get it. She did. "In this family, you have to compete," she says. Even against your own body. As a little girl, if she complained that she was not feeling well, her father would tell her: "Yes, you do {feel well}. Think positive. Feel better. Imagine that you are feeling better."

Winning is the only prescription Kemp knows. "No good quarterback ever talks about losing before the game," he says. Like a quarterback who knows he can inspire an entire team, Kemp is certain that if he assumes a winning attitude -- this effort will not fail! -- and sticks to the game plan, victory will be the result. "If you are a quarterback calling a play," he says, "you've got to believe in it, make your team believe in it."

Yet no matter how much he believes, Kemp has put himself in an impossible situation -- he is so afraid of losing, he won't admit he's not winning. And if he won't see that the game plan isn't working, he can't change it.

"He's having a hell of a liftoff problem," says Kevin P. Phillips, author of several books on the conservative movement. "But really, Jack represents issues that peaked two to six years ago. He's running around with an arcane litany of issues like enterprise zones for ghettos and a return to the gold standard to stabilize the dollar. His gospel is supply-side economics. His theme music is out of date."

Even his supporters have problems with Kemp's inability to negotiate, his lack of flexibility. "While consistency is a good trait, it can cost you votes when you are against import barriers in Mississippi as well as Buffalo," says Trent Lott, the House minority whip who joined with Kemp to put a right-wing stamp on the '84 platform.

Being a target of criticism is not new to Kemp, but it reinforces his commitment to the game plan. A favorite phrase in the Kemp household is "be a leader." (To Kemp, that means taking a position and convincing himself of its worth until he feels it "in the marrow of my bones." Then he convinces those around him.) He believes winning is the only way to deal with naysayers: Just go out and prove them wrong. His instinct is to ignore criticism, though there is plenty.

Critics say Kemp has been unable to establish his name as a household word or to set himself apart from the Republican herd. The American public knows George Bush because Bush has run for president and is the sitting vice president. Bob Dole has run for president, has been his party's vice presidential candidate and is the Senate minority leader. Pat Robertson has a massive television audience. In such company, being a former great quarterback and a congressman from western New York doesn't cut it.

Kemp also has the problem of any insurgent, says Democrat pollster Harrison Hickman. "He's got to show why the guys in power don't deserve to be there. His fight is to show that Bush and Dole aren't the legitimate heirs to Reagan. But it's hard to prove that in the first generation after the king leaves the throne."

Kemp's game plan for recognition is to cash in on his identity as Ronald Reagan's "idea man," the political architect of supply-side economics. Kemp pledges to continue the Reagan revolution -- more tax cuts, stronger opposition to abortion, more aid to the contras and a more cynical eye on arms-control treaties. But all the Republican candidates are saying they don't want to raise taxes, they're against abortion, and the Soviets won't fool them. Kemp labels himself a true conservative, but Republicans everywhere wave the conservative banner these days. "It's confusing," Kemp said. "Everybody calls themselves 'conservatives.' Everybody calls themselves 'Reaganites.' Confusing, very confusing."

But it is Kemp who is perceived as confusing, when his message is heard at all. His appeal to traditional Democratic bases such as minorities and blue-collar workers leaves conservatives cold. "Jack's idea is to make the Republican Party the better party, bring in new people and new ideas," says Irving Kristol, a New York neo-conservative. "But the old-line Republicans don't want it. They are happy winning occasional elections. They are comfortable with the way the system works. If you change the party, then you change the leadership, and then they might no longer be in control, in command of power and authority."

"Kemp is like a needle on a geiger counter," says a Republican strategist working against Kemp. "He brings out all the tensions in the party. There is a schizophrenia in his campaign between the yuppies, baby boomers and the evangelicals. The only way he can win is to form a coalition between the new right, the yuppies and the far right, the evangelicals. The yuppies think the evangelicals are intolerant. The evangelicals are uncomfortable with the $80, blow-dry haircut. He has made no inroads into the party regulars, the moderate establishment types. That's why he is not getting any money or support."

Even the father of Kemp's supply-side economic theories, economist Arthur Laffer, is supporting Bush. "Jack is a hostile, aggressive, belligerent politician. A president can't convince people by silencing them. I know Jack better than anyone, and he's not capable of being judicial, presidential."

Nevertheless, Kemp sees himself as a populist. He says 25 to 30 percent of the American people are actively conservative and 20 percent are strongly liberal; he wants to gain ground among the other 50 percent. Kemp wants these people to know that his father started out delivering packages on Harley-Davidson motorcycles before building a delivery service that used trucks; that he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood; that his teammates on the football field included blacks; that he was a founder of a union -- the National Football League Players Association; that he gets votes from the big labor community in blue-collar Buffalo; that he has a record of supporting increases in Social Security payments. It's a hard sell. "There is an element of jealousy with Jack," says Lott. "Jack is not like the rest of us. He is a national congressman. His ideas have changed the country. He was a football star. Some people see him as a little too big for his own good."

Despite all this, the great quarterback still sees a way to win the game. He plans to finish third in Iowa, leaving him enough life to get to New Hampshire, where he can get hit by the kind of lightning that struck long shots Jimmy Carter and Gary Hart. Kemp still thinks Bush might stumble and Dole might fade. Calamity for either man would, in Kemp's mind, put Kemp on the cover of Time, create the candidate who came back from the dead. "We are waiting for that moment, and when it comes it won't be like Gary Hart and 'Where's the Beef?' " says campaign chairman Rollins.

"Right now the elite of the party is having its way," says Kemp adviser Roger Stone. "But remember, the establishment wing of the party is not the nominating wing. They didn't nominate Goldwater or Reagan. The nominating is done by the party activists and the Republican voters in the primaries, and they'll nominate Jack Kemp."

JACK KEMP SITS IN THE BIG LEATHER

chair of his Bethesda home. He is next to the kitchen, in front of the TV, a few steps from the pool and surrounded by his football trophies and books. He is reluctant to talk about losing. "I'll be absolutely candid and tell you I have not thought about what I would do {if I am not elected president}. I grew up thinking no door closes in our life that another door won't open. After lots of consideration, I decided to run based on the fact that I thought it was exactly the right time to run, that I have a share in the right ideas at the right time, and I think, honestly, if I do it the right way, that I will win."

But still, he could lose. How would he deal with that?

"I can win even if I lose," he says. "I can't define what winning would be by losing, but winning in the sense of moving the party, raising the consciousness of the party, broadening the base of the party, advancing ideas that I think are important for the party, the country, the West. {I have} no alternate strategy or game plan. I haven't thought about '92. I've told friends in the {congressional} district to run for Congress, not to wait for me. I'm not in this to be vice president. I wouldn't make a good vice president. Without denigrating the vice presidency, I would say that this is the time for me to run for president.

"I'm sure something will come of my campaign whether I win or lose," he says, his voice rising, as if by his will he could make his words true. "That's how I've got to feel, for me, personally."

If he loses, would he run again in 1992?

He says he might be commissioner of the NFL by then, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, secretary of the treasury or secretary of state. "We got into this with a lot of thought and with some faith that there will be something for me to do," he says, visibly impatient with the possibility that he might be late for his tennis game. "We tell our children that. We were brought up that way ourselves."

Kemp's usual optimism wears thin as questions about losing continue. To Jack Kemp, people who even talk about losing are losers. "You know them," he says. "Some people can tell you why you won't win. Some people can tell you why what you are doing won't work, why the nation is going into a recession, why the sky is falling. If you are a quarterback calling a play, you've got to believe in it, make your team believe in it, you don't need people telling you it won't work, why it won't work."

According to Kemp, the losers to worry about are those running against him for president. The 1988 election, he says, will decide "whether the movement {the Reagan revolution} goes forward or the old guard Republicans let it fall back." Dole, he says, talks about tax increases and the threat posed by a large deficit. Bush, he says, "was never part of the Reagan movement. I was. No one can accuse me of apostasy."Du Pont, Robertson and Alexander Haig harp on the deficit, Kemp says, and the need for import barriers to protect American businesses.

"People who think like losers, they revel in it. A lot of Republicans love losing. They love being in the minority. Their idea of a campaign is to beat up on the other guy {the Democrats}. That's not leadership. I just never believed you could lead anybody by telling them what their limits are. My idea of leadership is telling people what their potential is, what their positives are."

If Bush wins, Kemp sees the GOP falling into a loser's posture even if a Republican is in the White House: "It will be a rejection of the things for which Reagan ran in 1980. Bush was the number one opponent of the Kemp-Roth tax-cut bill in the Republican Party. He can lay claim to being loyal to Ronald Reagan, but it's tough for him to lay claim to having started anything that Reagan adopted. It's an easy place for people to be right now, for Bush. But that will kill the Republican Party. What's he going to do? Go out to the American people in '88 and say, 'I'm running for president because I was the most loyal to President Reagan'? It's more important who was loyal to his ideas. I'm loyal to his ideas."

And if Bob Dole wins?

Then, Kemp says, the Republicans and the nation will be "in a holding action -- deficits will be attacked, and even so we're still going to go through hell with more taxes. Dole said there's going to be a recession for the next president's first six months in office."

And if a Democrat wins?

They're losers, too, "selling fear of the future" with their talk about tax increases, he says. "The left is still sitting around, praying for a recession to prove that what we started in '81 {the Kemp-Roth tax cuts} were wrong." In his speeches he reminds audiences that another JFK said the nation should go anywhere, bear any burden, pay any price to defend democracy. But today's Democrats, Kemp shouts, are not like JFK, but like the "Mondale/McGovern/Carter wing of the party," which "won't even go into their own hemisphere to defend democracy and our neighbors."

And if Kemp wins?

"I basically think we are going into the golden age," says Kemp, launching into a familiar refrain: If tax cuts and lower taxes are allowed to prevail, they will combine with new technology to speed economic growth and shrink the deficit while "democracy and capitalism continue on the path to end communism."

Kemp knows that this kind of talk has led the other candidates to label him a Pollyanna. "Whenever I'm around, Dole starts saying this is no time for easy choices. I know he's talking about me. I know what he's saying. He's suggesting I think it's a bed of roses. Well, I don't think it should be all that difficult to get this economy growing again."

In his own campaign, where critics see only problems, Kemp sees only opportunity. You've got to hand it to the man. He really is an optimist. He insists he is not dead. In fact, he says, Bush and Dole fear him. They are eager to get him out of the race early by enlisting the press to write stories that say he is dead.

One might wonder where that fear comes from because a June Washington Post poll of probable Republican voters showed Bush (35 percent) and Dole (28 percent) far ahead of Kemp (11 percent).

"It should be obvious," he says. "They know they're weak. If the vice president for the most popular president is in the low 30s, he has got problems. They're worried about their own campaigns. Nixon {Eisenhower's vice president} was in the low 50s. George Bush is in the 30s. Dole has been out there; people know who he is. And he is in the 20s. I'm in the teens.

"It's incredible that at the end of the most popular presidency in modern history, the Republican Party is still the minority party," says Kemp. "It's a real shame to have gone through eight years of the Reagan presidency and end up not having broadened the base of the Republican Party. Blue-collar voters voted for Reagan, but they don't think of themselves as Republicans. Jews voted for Reagan, but they didn't rally to the party as they did during the Roosevelt years. Blacks did not vote Republican because no one ever appealed to them before. Hispanics probably would be willing to reassess their allegiance, but no one really reached out to them from the Republican side.

"I've had some people tell me that my strategy is a false one. 'Why are you doing this, Jack? They {blacks, Jews, union members and Hispanics} can't vote in the {Republican} primaries.' I'm staking my whole case on my ability to broaden the base of the Republican Party, not doing it at the expense of principles, but building a coalition for democratic capitalism, people capitalism. That will make the Republican Party a majority party. Now, there are those Republicans who don't want to be a majority party. I know that. I'm challenging the status quo by running against that mind-set. When I run into folks like that, I discount it. I don't think the Republican Party can afford it. Republicans have been a minority of the House of Representatives for more than 40 years. How long do we have to be chained to some nihilistic faction?"

In other words, chained to a loser. In 1980 and 1984, Jack Kemp was at the heart of the Republican past as the architect of Reagan's economic revolution, and he may be at the heart of the 1990s with his visionary idea of bringing minorities and labor unions into the Republican Party. But he is not a man of the present. In 1988, it looks like Jack Kemp is the

loser. ::