Bill Bradley takes his final shot

The Democratic challenger tries to conquer the media's indifference in Washington state.

Topics: Democratic Party, Washington, D.C.

Campaign staffers for former Sen. Bill Bradley grimace when they see the approaching throngs of media. Largely ignored by the press since the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary, they suspect that we’ve come to bury Bradley, not to praise him.

It’s the Bradley campaign “death watch,” as more than one reporter has quipped. Reporters have started to take snapshots of one another, and to speculate as to which campaign they’ll be assigned after the former New York Knick heads to the showers.

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reporter assigned to cover Bradley was taken off the beat. And though ABC’s Jackie Judd has been with Bradley since the New Hampshire primary — when the Republican race became the political story of the year after Arizona Sen. John McCain crushed Texas Gov. George W. Bush — Judd says she has appeared on “World News Tonight” only once in the entire month.

Bradley’s inability to make news has led the campaign to purchase five minutes of air time on national television, at 10:54 p.m. EST Thursday, on CBS. Even this move suggests that, like the slumping Dan Rather newsmagazine he will be interrupting, “48 Hours,” Bradley hasn’t quite been ready for a battle in prime time. Asked why the campaign didn’t purchase a more glamorous slot — say, the last five minutes of the top-rated “ER,” which airs the same night on NBC — a Bradley spokesman acknowledged that the funds just weren’t there.

But long before voters got around to it — not to mention long before the the candidate would decide this type of media ad buy was necessary — the media had already written Bradley off.

Much of this is simple story chasing, of course. The McCain vs. Bush fight is hot and heavy and constantly evolving and changing, and Bradley’s quest to wrest the Democratic nomination from Vice President Al Gore relatively quiet, with no primary battles until Tuesday’s nonbinding “beauty contest” in Washington state.

Still, one can’t help wondering if the media’s ignoring of Bradley has more to do with its exasperation with the candidate’s odd campaign strategy, not to mention resentment of the candidate’s clear disdain for journalists, as has been well documented as long ago as his days as a basketball star. After all, Bradley did manage to come within 4 points of defeating a sitting vice president in the New Hampshire primary. And, as Bradley pointed out Monday morning at an event at the Aradia Women’s Health Center, he is actually very close to Gore in delegates — he has 27 delegates to Gore’s 41.

But the fault cannot lay entirely at the feet of reporters. Last week, Bradley touched down here in the Evergreen State and declared to the world that he was putting his national campaign on hold in order to vigorously compete in Washington in its Tuesday primary, in which zero delegates are at stake. (Washington’s delegates will actually be chosen during the March 7 Washington caucus.) The game plan was that a Bradley win in this state could help return national attention to his campaign and give him momentum toward next week’s all-important Super Tuesday contests.

“That’s a very important state for us prior to the March 7th primaries,” Bradley said Sunday in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

“Bradley: Washington State is ‘Important Battleground,’” read a Bradley press release from Feb. 20. “Campaign Increases Staff and Resources Throughout State.”

So Bradley spent five days here, running around with Seattle’s Mayor Paul Schell and gaining the endorsement of the Seattle Times.

Gore buzzed in, too, with the support of the state’s Democratic senator, Patty Murray; its governor, Gary Locke; the state’s Democratic apparatus; and all the unions. His campaign launched a new TV spot describing last summer’s hike up Mount Rainier with his son, Albert III, which he at the time was reluctant to tell anyone about.

A recent Evans/McDonough poll of Washington state Democrats shows that Bradley’s trip has been for naught. Gore leads 64 percent to Bradley’s 28 percent.

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Monday afternoon, Bradley left Washington state and flew to California.

“What happens here tomorrow is not determinative of March 7,” he insisted Monday morning. “I said from the beginning that if we did well here, maybe we’d get a little bounce. But I knew it would be difficult. And it has been.”

None of which means that Bradley has given up. Continuing to make a valiant effort to distinguish himself from Gore, Bradley stood with Marcy Bloom, executive director of the Aradia Women’s Health Center on Monday morning, where she and others decried Gore’s past flirtation with opposition to abortion and heralded Bradley’s consistent support for abortion rights.

As a congressman and senator, Gore opposed the use of federal funding to provide abortion services. In 1983, a letter from then-Rep. Gore to a constituent described abortion as “arguably the taking of a human life.” And in 1984 he voted for an amendment opposed by abortion-rights groups that would have defined “person” under the Age Discrimination Act of 1974 to include unborn children from conception on. Though Gore has said that his position on the issue of federal funding has changed, Bradley has attempted to seize upon these votes as examples of Gore’s hollow shell and his fudging about his record — with, it would seem, little result.

On Feb. 15, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League endorsed Gore. “The threat to choice is too great to be used as a divisive political weapon,” said NARAL President Kate Michelman.

But Bradley continued to use the weapon Monday, asserting not only that he’s “the only presidential candidate who has always been 100 percent pro-choice throughout his career” but also that he’s “the only candidate who’s pro-choice for all women all the time.” Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser explained that this last comment was a reference to the fact that the Gore campaign “took four days last August to decide if they were for or against federal funding.”

Bradley faces tough competition from another candidate, one he never counted on running against in the Democratic primary: McCain. Regardless of the Bush spin that Democrats and independents are voting for McCain in droves in open primaries to make mischief — an accusation that insults the intelligence of all who hear it, as well as those who continue to regurgitate it — McCain is clearly the candidate who has had the most electrifying effect on disenchanted voters longing for reform. Many of these voters are pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-environment. These should be Bradley voters, but they’re not.

“I think some of our oxygen was taken out by the Republican process,” Bradley told a TV interviewer Monday morning. “But when you look for a reform candidate, you need to look at the differences.”

Thus Bradley has taken to calling himself “reform-plus.” While agreeing that McCain is a true reformer, he argues that these self-disfranchised voters can have a McCain-like reformer plus someone who shares their views on social issues.

“The American people yearn for change in Washington,” Bradley said Monday morning. He waxed poetic that Americans long for “a clear mountain stream to roll through the city” and cleanse D.C. with campaign finance reform, lobbying reform and greater voter participation. “But I’m a reform candidate who’s also pro-choice, pro-gun control … and strong on the environment.”

“The non-conservative McCain alternative” read a Bradley sign one volunteer carried during a packed rally at the University of Washington’s “red square” quad Monday afternoon.

“People say we’re behind,” Bradley effused to the mostly curious crowd of around 4,000 U Dub students. “But they’re not here. They don’t sense your energy … They don’t sense your yearning for straight talk.”

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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