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By Joe Klein (Dell Pub Co.; 416 pages; $26.95) Joe Klein knows Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. He’s probably interviewed him. Thinks well of him. Yet Sen. Charlie Martin, protagonist of Klein’s new book, “The Running Mate”, is no Bob Kerrey. Sort of. In Klein’s post-”Primary Colors” world, the political actors are sometimes obvious understudies of their real-life Washington counterparts. Gov. Jack Stanton reprises his Bill Clinton riff and Hillary, er, Susan Stanton is back with a few recognizable aides from “Colors” and the Clinton West Wing. Charlie Martin is a reluctant, and less identifiable, player in this crowd, but useful to Klein as a foil. Martin is a middle-aged Midwestern senator, Vietnam War hero, and much-chronicled bachelor. He has a safe Senate seat, a keen grasp of defense policy, and what he believes to be a firm handle on who and what he stands for. Yet a collision with Jack Stanton’s presidential, scandal-prone juggernaut convinces him otherwise. “The Running Mate” offers a different slant on the Stanton/Clinton political era. Klein offers Martin as political travel guide, a senator at a crossroads of his personal and political lives with an ideal vantage point of the currents that keep afloat, and sink, our political discourse. Klein has a viewpoint, and it is here, but his tone is not preachy and there is little finger-pointing, with demons and altruists working both sides of the novel’s aisle. Martin seeks the Democratic nomination that Stanton covets and captures, but ultimately concludes what others around him already had: that he was not ready for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and perhaps never would be. A politician who reviles focus groups as “cheating” because you can’t “trust someone to lead when they can’t trust themselves to say the right thing” is admirable, but ultimately unsuited, for today’s micromanaged, technology-laden campaigns. Whither Carville, Matalin, and company if candidates mapped their own courses? The senator’s presidential campaign, though, is but a small part of “The Running Mate”; it affords Klein an opportunity to dissect some timely issues — a faux sex scandal, the vapid veepstakes, and an updated John Tower/Pentagon confirmation contretemps. Yet these episodes are not so much a civics lesson as explanatory pieces of a political puzzle that no longer fits together for Martin. It would be tempting to think, then, that the point of “The Running Mate” is the political battle Martin is ultimately forced to wage in defense of his Senate seat. The re-election race is replete with consultants, dirty tricks and all the baggage a ’90s political-media fest could offer. The wealthy heir to a muffler franchise fortune, who turns a conservative radio talk show perch into an insurgent Senate challenge, is a perfect vehicle for Klein to display the depth and breadth of his campaign insight. The pretender, Leland Butler, is an annoying, intriguing twit with money to burn during President Stanton’s first midterm election. Both the dangers, and quirky grass-roots appeal, of these political neophytes are explored. Yet Klein’s decision to use each of Martin’s campaigns as backdrops demonstrates as well as any sharply turned phrase in the book that his power as an author is growing. “The Running Mate’s” far more compelling story line is where Martin’s journeys are taking him: love and happiness, as Al Green might sing. This is risky business for the formerly “Anonymous” Klein, whose strengths have previously run to policy matters and electoral horse races instead of slippery emotional terrain. Moreover, the commercial audience for the book may not anticipate what it actually is: a love story that eschews Harlequin trappings for a supporting tableau of policy wonks and political current events. On this basis, “The Running Mate” works best. The scenes between Martin and Nell Palmerston, a feisty New York swimwear designer who’s easily the match of a smart, crafty politician, may not evolve gracefully. The rhythms of the symbiotic language of lovers may still be a novel or so in Klein’s future. Yet, the arc of their relationship has a whimsical, liberating quality to it. That’s partly because readers will be drawn to Martin freeing himself from conventional, inside-the-Beltway life. But also because the time they share on these pages is fun. Many of these interludes could aptly be sound tracked by Rickie Lee Jones’ warbling that “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Martin is madly in love with Nell, and it certainly prompts one to at least hope Sen. Kerrey felt the same about Debra Winger. But, of course, Martin is not Kerrey. Sort of. While Charlie Martin hopes to build a future with Nell Palmerston, another of Klein’s successful conventions is to give him a past; some of it rocky, but most of it defined by the lasting friendships formed with a band of soldiers and diplomats in Vietnam. These “Lords of the Delta,” as one officer sarcastically dubbed them, survive the waves of time and tension that erode less weighty friendships. That all of them ascend to political and diplomatic heights in the Stanton era is novelistic convenience, but welcome just the same. Klein’s touch with their competitive, yet deeply interwoven, relationships lends a valuable texture and rationale to Martin’s makeup. As “The Running Mate” advances, Klein builds an idyllic alternate life for Martin just a shuttle ride away from Washington. He adores Nell’s kids, co-exists with their father (who still co-habitates with Nell), and begins to find the city a lot more palatable than weekend campaign junkets home for rubber chicken and cold green beans. When Martin blows off a major political supporter to dash back to New York for takeout and checkers with the kids, one almost gets the feeling that Klein is headed for “The American President” territory — the Rob Reiner world where politicians always do the right thing, and always come out ahead for it. Yet “The Running Mate” smartly, and deftly, avoids such fantasy. There are benefits, and steep costs, to the paths Charlie Martin is taking and they are on display when he must decide how to defend his home turf, and Nell, as his re-election tussle with the muffler scion takes center stage. Watching the campaign, and part of Martin’s career hang in a perilous balance created by his love for Nell, a longtime friend silently observes that this man, this estimable senator, will never be president. True enough. But he will love, and govern, again. Perhaps not with the chaotic abandon that Jack Stanton reserves for each activity, but maybe again in Joe Klein’s pages. Brad Risinger is a partner in the Raleigh, N.C., office of Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore.

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