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Kerrey: Enigmatic, Daring War Hero Known For Unpredictability With AM-Kerrey-President, Bjt

September 30, 1991

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ As a center on his high school football team, Bob Kerrey pushed around players much bigger than his 154 pounds.

″He was just tough,″ recalls Hank Willemsen, one of his high school teachers. ″Pound for pound, he was tough to handle.″

Kerrey displayed that same toughness years later as a Navy SEAL, when he directed an attack on a Viet Cong terrorist group even after a grenade exploded at his feet. The incident cost him part of his right leg and earned him the Medal of Honor.

Now the 48-year-old Nebraska senator - still known for his daring, independence and stubborn nature - has set his sights on the White House.

″I see a lot of challenges ahead that aren’t going to go away if we close our eyes,″ he says.

The charismatic Kerrey, who formally entered the Democratic presidential race Monday, has taken risks and defied the odds all his life.

He was an obscure businessman when he ousted Republican Gov. Charles Thone in 1982. Then after one term, he walked away from a sure bet for re-election. His explanation: ″I need a little danger.″

Yet two years later, he returned to politics and won a U.S. Senate seat, again ousting a Republican incumbent.

At his 1988 victory party, flanked by his son and daughter, Kerrey launched into a dramatic rendition of the anti-war ballad, ″And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.″ The audience was captivated as he sang the tale of a young man who loses his legs in combat.

Kerrey talks matter-of-factly about his own disability and hasn’t let it stop him from athletic pursuits. He rises early every morning to run.

″He’s so self-driven. Not only can he run, he runs marathons,″ said Bev Higby, who was married to Kerrey for four years before the couple divorced in 1978. ″I’ve never seen him not get what he sets out to get.″

Kerrey is perhaps best known nationally for his sporadic relationship with actress Debra Winger. The two met while he was governor and she was making the movie ″Terms of Endearment″ in Nebraska.

In the Senate, Kerrey has established himself as an expert on agriculture, an advocate for major health care reforms and a liberal voice on defense matters. He voted against going to war in the Persian Gulf.

″I don’t think he’s afraid to go against the popular grain,″ Willemsen said. ″It may not be the most popular thing at the time, but if he believes it is in the best interest of the people, well, he’ll say it.″

Kerrey is one of seven children born to a building contractor and a teacher in Lincoln. He graduated from the University of Nebraska and is a licensed pharmacist but doesn’t practice that profession. He made his fortune in restaurants and sports centers.

The family wasn’t very partisan but had lively discussions about public affairs, said Kerrey’s sister, state Sen. Jessie Rasmussen of Omaha.

″Our father challenged our thinking, instead of trying to influence our thinking one way or another,″ she said.

Kerrey still has a tendency to think out loud and change his mind about things - a trait that endears him to fans but draws scorn from political rivals. ″That is not what a president is made of,″ says Kermit Brashear, who was the state GOP chairman during much of Kerrey’s term as governor.

Nebraskans apparently don’t mind his reversals, even when they go against the state’s conservative bent. Over the years he’s maintained a high approval rating - 69 percent in a recent poll.

In one notable about-face, Kerrey supported a law to ban flag burning but changed his mind after reading the Supreme Court opinions striking down the law. He gave a powerful floor speech that concluded with thoughts on his harrowing war experience and thanks that America ″does not need our government to protect us from those who burn a flag.″

Kerrey’s war record is one reason he has not paid a political price for such views with his rock-ribbed constituents. But from the start, his hold on them seems to have transcended politics.

Media consultant Joe Rothstein made Kerrey’s 1982 primary ads. He returned to the state several weeks after Kerrey’s victory to film parade footage for his general election campaign.

″He had been totally unknown 60 days earlier, yet people were jumping off the sidewalk to touch him,″ Rothstein recalled. ″I had never seen that phenomenon before. I thought at the time, there’s something going on here that you just can’t capture in words.″

Kerrey also displays the pragmatism of the self-made millionaire and the perspective of someone who once abandoned politics.

His former wife describes him as ″very down to earth,″ a man who would rather see his son earn money to buy a car than give him one as a gift. ″He knows what’s important,″ Ms. Higby said.

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