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Here comes Jack Kemp

THE presidential boom for Jack Kemp for 1988 started on the floor of the 1984 national convention. The demonstration, of course, was organized, but the intensity of the support was noteworthy. It foretold, very early, what the Kemp vs. Bush race for the nomination is going to be: Kemp will start off with more emotional commitment among his backers. George Bush's support will be wider but less deep. Of course, there will be other rivals for Kemp to face; in the end, perhaps, they will be more formidable than Bush. But it is useful to use the Kemp-Bush pairing in rating Kemp's chances. Also, these politicians see each other in the ``finals'' of the battle for the GOP presidential nomination -- and each is already jockeying for position with the other in mind.

For example, Mr. Kemp, a leading advocate of tax reform, has relented a bit in how far he would go in stripping preferences from oil and gas people. He contends that he merely listened to their arguments and was persuaded that it was best for the national security to see that there were incentives to move the United States toward energy independence.

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There are observers here who read into these Kemp concessions an awareness that Bush is already way out front in his promises to protect the interests of the energy executives.

But Kemp has long since proved that he is no follower. It was he, more than anyone else, who persuaded the President to pursue a tax-cutting course in an effort to achieve maximum growth in the economy. And he has been not at all backward about bashing Paul Volcker and the Federal Reserve for not taking action sooner to lower interest rates. Also, Kemp has been a major force in the push to bring about a new, simplified tax code.

In his early years in Washington Kemp evoked some smirks. He was widely viewed, by Republicans as well as Democrats, as bumptious and lacking in an ability to get below the surface of problems. But that perception has changed, in great part, even among his detractors.

Of Kemp that highly respected Democrat, Robert Strauss, has this to say: ``I saw Kemp work on the Central American commission on a day-to-day basis. He was extremely well prepared when he came to our meetings. He showed a willingness to listen to reasoned arguments on every issue. He was a very positive force on that commission. He impressed us all.''

And that astute Republican John P. Sears says: ``If 1988 is a year for new ideas -- and I think it will be -- then Kemp has already proved that he can take a new idea [supply-side economics] and not look like a fool in presenting it. Indeed, he was able to make a very strong presentation.''

Recently Mr. Kemp was asked, ``What would you bring to the presidency?'' a question very much like the one Roger Mudd asked Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1980 -- and to which Kennedy gave a particularly inept response.

Kemp answered with a flood of words: He's known for that, together with his enthusiasm and sincerity. But even while using the caveat ``If I decided to run,'' it was clear he was ready for the question.

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He said he would ``broaden the ideas that are important to the type of country we would want America to be.'' He thought he could ``bring a sense of unification'' to the country and bring people into the party that ``have not heretofore been touched by the Republican message.'' Here he was speaking about the appeal to blue-collar workers and to ethnic groups that has made him an eight-time winner in a suburban Buffalo congressional district that is considered Democratic in makeup.

Again and again Kemp referred to his participation in shaping the economy as being important to what he could do as President. ``I think one of my strengths,'' he said, ``is understanding how our economy should work and can work, not just for some people but for all people. And I think it would have a beneficial impact on other parts of the world that are looking to us for leadership.'' He talked, too, of the ``conventional Republican ideas'' he had when he came to Congress, out of football stardom: ``I came to Congress, very simply, with very orthodox free-enterprise ideas. I was against foreign aid. I was for a balanced budget at all costs, even it if meant raising taxes. That was the first order of fiscal prudence and responsibility.''

But your shift away from these positions, how did that come about?

Well, Buffalo, unlike my fairly middle-class surroundings in Los Angeles, was a very heterogeneous community. And I had to begin to reach out. It forced me to come to grips with pretty much what was on the mind of the people of Buffalo:

And that is, how do you get jobs, how do you get growth, how do you get prosperity, and how do you enable families to view the future with a higher degree of hope? And I began early to see that it wasn't a balanced budget that those folks were concerned with.

Were your changes in viewpoints sudden, like an apple falling on your head?

No, it was a metamorphosis. I watched and read voraciously what had been the experience of this country: Particularly what [President John] Kennedy had done in the early '60s to get the country moving again.

And now, too, I believe that you need a good foreign aid program. But part of foreign aid is not just redistributing wealth. Part of real foreign aid is to help encourage policies that can work with those third-world countries and other nations.

Is that the end of the Kemp metamorphosis?

No, I'm still learning.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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