"Fearless, Restless Voyage of Generational Progress"

Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey entered the campaign almost on impulse.  In the spring of 1991, he appeared to have decided against running for president.  However, at the end of August, perturbed by President Bush's irresolute response to the Soviet coup, and encouraged by what he saw as a weak field, Kerrey began considering a presidential bid.  He formally announced on September 30 in front of the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska.

At the outset, Kerrey looked to be a formidable contender.  He had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after being wounded while leading a Navy SEAL team in Vietnam.  During his governorship he achieved "star" quality with his informal style and romantic association with actress Debra Winger. 

In fact, however, the Nebraska Senator was playing catch-up from the moment he announced his presidential bid because he had not spent months in advance planning his campaign.  Potential financial backers, who had approached Kerrey earlier in the year, had since gone to other camps.  Kerrey's campaign staff squandered time in the early months until finally, just before Christmas, he replaced top aides.  And although Kerrey attracted a loyal following of young supporters, he seemed unable to build much enthusiasm in the crowds he spoke to in New Hampshire.  He didn't appear to have sufficient "fire in the belly" and campaigned with a kind of ironic detachment.

A number of other self-inflicted wounds prevented the Kerrey campaign from making any headway.[1]  In November Kerrey told a joke that offended gay rights groups.  In December a story came out about labor violations at the restaurant chain that he partially owned.  In January the campaign aired a tough television spot on trade (showing Kerrey in a empty hockey rink) that didn't seem to accord with Kerrey's own views on the subject. 

The centerpiece of Kerrey's campaign was his plan for a national health care system.  Kerrey's intense focus on the issue got people to think and talk about health care, but the legislation he had put forth was complex and, to some, indecipherable.  On a broader level Kerrey made a case for generational sacrifice and fundamental change.  He put forth a proposal to reduce the number of Cabinet departments from fourteen to seven and to eliminate three-quarters of congressional committees and subcommittees.

When Clinton became engulfed in the media firestorm in New Hampshire toward the end of January and into February, Kerrey staffers expected that Clinton would fold and their man would emerge, but the Nebraskan's candidacy failed to connect with voters.  Some of the ambivalence with which he entered the race seemed to carry forward, having a somewhat deflating effect on voter enthusiasm.  Kerrey noted in his withdrawal speech, "I hit stride a couple of weeks too late in the state of New Hampshire."

Despite having outspent the other Democrats in New Hampshire, Kerrey finished a distant third with 12% of the vote.  He won the February 25 South Dakota primary with 40% of the vote, but that little-noticed contest provided no boost.  Kerrey then faced a string of primaries and caucuses in the following two weeks with no money and little momentum.  In Georgia, making a last-ditch effort, Kerrey attacked Clinton's handling of questions about his avoidance of military service.  Kerrey predicted, in a much publicized remark that, "...he [Clinton] is going to be opened up like a soft peanut in November of 1992."[2]  Kerrey finished no better than fourth in six contests on March 3, including the primary in his neighboring state of Colorado.  He announced the end of his candidacy March 5, in a speech that demonstrated the spirit that his supporters had hoped to see more often on the campaign trail.

Kerrey did not endorse Clinton until the convention.  Although his name was often mentioned in vice presidential speculation, he does not appear to have been seriously considered by the Clinton team.

1. For a critical account, see Sidney Blumenthal.  "The Politics of Self."  The New Republic, January 20, 1992, pages 22-27. 

2. When Clinton's draft record reemerged as an issue in September, Kerrey defended Clinton in a speech on the Senate floor (September 10).  Saying he sympathized with decisions Clinton had made 25 years earlier, Kerrey challenged Bush's own credibility and urged the President to "call off the dogs."

Steve Naplan, a deputy press secretary of Kerrey for President, was interviewed for this section.

Other Articles:
--.  "Lexington,"  The Economist, October 5, 1991, page 34.

Dennis Farney.  "Candidate Kerrey's Strength, and His Weakness Is That He Has Been Defined Outside of Politics."  Wall Street Journal, October 24, 1991, page A18.

Rhodes Cook.  "Story of Heroism and Romance Fuels Great Expectations."  Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, December 14, 1991, pages 3650-3655.

Peter J. Boyer.  "Bob Kerrey's Odyssey," Vanity Fair, January 1992 (Vol. 55, No. 1), pages 98-103 and 127-31.

--.  "Lexington,"  The Economist, February 8, 1992, page 30.

More Resources:

C-SPAN: Bob Kerrey Sept. 1991-July 1992 chronological  |  C-SPAN: all Bob Kerrey

Adam Sexton. "NH Primary Vault: Bob Kerrey's Failure to Launch in 1992."  WMUR-TV, Oct. 15, 2015.

University of Nebraska: J. Robert "Bob" Kerrey, Congressional Records