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Sizing up the Kemp factor // VP choice shows Dole's humanitarian concerns

Two months ago, when he stepped down from the Senate, Bob Dole spoke warmly of "my friend Hubert Humphrey." Reminiscing about the great Minnesota liberal Democrat who became vice president but never president, Dole said "nobody ever understood" how he and Humphrey "could be such good friends. We didn't have a problem at all."

When he chose Jack Kemp to be his running mate, the GOP presidential nominee tapped the closest equivalent to Hubert Humphrey the modern-era Republican Party has ever seen. And once again, few could understand why Dole had chosen a man who seemed so much his opposite _ a voluble tax-cutter who wears his political heart on his sleeve, now teamed with a taciturn budget-balancer who keeps his emotions to himself.

Some see no resemblance between Humphrey, the classic New Dealer who rarely met a federal program he didn't like, and Kemp, the constant apostle of free markets and low taxes.

But they had a common passion _ an urgent, irresistible impulse to make certain that this country worked for every one of its citizens, especially those whose prospects are impeded by poverty, physical infirmity or racial prejudice.

Their passion was public, evidenced by their breathless, machine-gun speech delivery and their tendency to harangue listeners into exhaustion. But it derived from personal experience _ Humphrey's in a Depression-era family where everyone worked; Kemp's in competitive athletics, where social class distinctions disappeared and only ability and effort mattered. When I compared Kemp to Humphrey in a 1987 profile, I got a warm letter from Kemp saying thanks for the honor.

I realize that circumstances played a big part in Kemp's 11th-hour emergence for the No. 2 spot on the ticket. Had Dole on his own been able to make it a competitive race with President Clinton at this point, odds are he would have made the safe choice and picked one of those Midwest governors whose local popularity might have swung a key state from the Democratic to the Republican column.

But lagging by 15 or 20 points, and armed only with a controversial tax-cutting plan and a platform that failed to send the message of inclusiveness that he wanted, Dole had to gamble.

Kemp is a gamble. He has a penchant for puncturing Republican cliches, and he is increasingly intolerant of the smugness the white male hierarchy of his party often conveys. So far, he has refused to join the cry for punitive or restrictive immigration policies and has defended affirmative action programs _ aggravating many other Republicans. He resists the Republican inclination to offer term limits as a cure for everything that ails Washington.

Kemp is also a bit of a loose cannon. When he was a Cabinet member under George Bush, he was infuriated by the president's indifference, and chief of staff John Sununu's hostility, to the urban and anti-poverty programs Kemp was supposed to run. All they wanted him to do was sit down and shut up. Instead, he harangued them in the Cabinet room and complained in the press when he was overruled _ as he almost always was.

Knowing this history, Dole was still seeking reassurance from Kemp Friday night that for the duration of the campaign, at least, Kemp would be a team player. Hours after most Republicans here had concluded that it was a done deal, Dole was still weighing risks against possible rewards. But in the end, he decided to put his legitimate concerns aside and offer the prize to Kemp.

Of course, politics played a big part in Dole's choice. Kemp is far better known and has a larger constituency among Republican activists than any of the others on Dole's final list of alternatives.

But it also says something important _ and good _ about Bob Dole that he was able to put aside his doubts and enlist the Republican Hubert Humphrey. What it says to me is that, however inarticulate he may in expressing his dreams in personal terms, Dole instinctively is drawn to people in whom that humanitarian impulse burns strongly.

Like Humphrey and Kemp, he yearns for an America that works for everyone _ not just the privileged few. That is certainly not enough to assure that he would be a capable president. But without that instinct, even the most competent president will not be able to fulfill the expectations people rightly hold.

Dole has passed that first threshold test. Now we will see how well the Dole-Kemp team holds up under the pressures of an uphill campaign.

Washington Post Writers Group