How to gore Al?

Bill Bradley looks for a winning issue. Is it Bill Clinton?

Published April 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Right before the New Hampshire State Democratic Convention at Memorial High School here two weeks ago, Tipper Gore, standing in for her husband, walked right past Bill Bradley, without so much as a hello. Bradley raised his arms in confusion, and Gore, who simply hadn't seen him, rushed back down the hall to give both Bradley and his wife, Ernestine, a hug and kiss.

Before the flatteringly lit, pin-striped Gore addressed the crowd, she made sure to thank the Bradleys. And when Bradley takes the stage -- a somewhat stooped 6-foot-5, with "the body of an 80-year-old man," as his fellow Knicks said 25 years ago -- he's careful not to attack her husband as he delivers what are on the surface unobjectionable remarks about who he is and what he stands for.

It's all very amicable right now between the two Democrats. But in between basketball anecdotes and life-of-the-mind explanations of why he's running for president, it's not hard to discern an anti-Gore subtext in Bradley's subtle digs at President Clinton, the impeached boss whom Gore cannot abandon.

"Principles don't work without trust," he says, leading into the longest and loudest applause line of the convention: "You have to have trust in the president as an individual. And we need to restore that."

Gore "has a taint," agrees Joan Reische, a Manchester baker who helps organize a luncheon for Bradley later that day.

But if you don't believe Gore's garment is stained with unseemly Clinton DNA -- and many Democratic voters will not -- you're going to need a reason or two to pick Bradley. He and Gore don't differ all that much on the issues, since both consider themselves center-leaning "New Democrats." When asked directly why anyone should vote for him as opposed to Gore -- a question Bradley is asked at almost every campaign stop -- Bradley declines to talk substance, saying that he will describe their policy differences in further detail in the fall, when people are paying more attention. He doesn't want to talk about them now lest the press shrug them off later as "old news," he says. He and certain waffling Republicans may eventually regret their reticence on the issues, since the front-loaded primary season means the race will be over by March 7, 2000, and there are signs that voters in the early primary states at least are already tuning in.

In Manchester, however, Bradley hints at a few substantive contrasts between himself and the veep. American economic prosperity, he argues, provides no excuse for the administration's indifference to the "one in five children living in poverty," not to mention "the 44 million Americans who don't have health insurance." On poverty and urban issues, he may run from Gore's left. He opposes the administration-backed welfare reform legislation of 1996, which has been given partial credit for a steep drop in the welfare rolls, but may leave poor children without a safety net when welfare time limits kick in for more states. "The larger issue for Bradley is how do you deal with children in poverty," says his spokesman, Eric Hauser. "Welfare isn't a solution to childhood poverty, with reforms or otherwise."

Exactly what Bradley would do differently about welfare and child poverty, however, still isn't clear. He didn't lay out much in the way of policy prescriptions in a race speech on Tuesday,
either, except to commit himself to a children's crusade. He will have to fight Gore for the votes of anti-poverty and civil right leaders, since Gore's work on empowerment zones, urban redevelopment and sprawl issues and Clinton's race panel have made his office the center of what little action has occurred in the Clinton administration on those issues.

Another major difference between the Democrats involves campaign finance reform. Bradley raised $12.9 million from 1985 until 1990, for his Senate reelection as well as for a possible presidential campaign war chest. But when he retired from the Senate and declared that politics was "broken," he was referring to the unfathomable emphasis on raising money. (However much he hates it, however, he seems to be scoring one slam dunk after another: Having raised more than $5 million, Bradley is No. 3 in fund-raising among all the candidates, behind only Gore, with $8,881,977, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, with $7,604,593, according to Federal Election Commission reports.)

"It's an interesting dilemma," Bradley says of trying to raise $500,000 a week while simultaneously arguing for campaign finance reform. In doing so, he gets to subtly dis Gore, whose only two personal scandals to date involve the issue -- his Buddhist temple fund-raising trip and the accusation that he "dialed for dollars" in 1996 from the wrong office. Bradley says that, if elected, "reducing the role of money in politics" will be one of his major priorities. Like Gore, Bradley will accept no PAC contributions, but -- in a direct slap at Gore -- he promises he will not establish a "General Election Legal and Accounting Committee," or GELAC, the campaign apparatus loophole through which Gore hopes to pump up his fund-raising goal from $47 to $55 million. It's not exactly as if voters anywhere have any idea what the hell a GELAC is, but Bradley's calculated message is not lost on political reporters. By bringing it up, Bradley knows who's not going to look so hot when reporters write their pieces about campaign finance reform.

On this issue, in fact, Bradley is almost an extremist, arguing that the hapless campaign finance reform bill offered by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is incomplete, if a "decent start." Though he hasn't yet addressed these issues in detail on the stump, in his memoir, "Time Present, Time Past," Bradley wrote that "TV and mail costs should be dramatically discounted," and that there should be "no PACs ... no unaccounted-for money for state parties ... and no rich candidates able to buy an election with their wealth." He argues that candidates for office should be limited to donations from their own state, and has even suggested that these measures be codified in an amendment to the Constitution.

Bradley's big contrast with Gore, he says, is his "leadership style." He depicts the Veep as stuck in the quicksand of caution. In addition to seizing on the dangerous but necessary divide on race, as a senator Bradley took on "big, complicated issues," he says, like tax reform, international trade and -- if you're still awake -- water rights. (The only graphics in "Time Present, Time Past" are two maps that help explain the Central Valley Project and the Fallon-Paiute-Shonshone and Truckee-Carson-Pyramid Lake Water Settlement Act of 1990. Zzzzzz.)

Bradley derides Gore, on the other hand, as focusing on "postage stamp" issues -- like his recent crusade for more efficient air travel. But painting Gore as unwilling to deal with complexity sells the vice president short. His work on "reinventing government," his Senate efforts as a military hawk and an environmental dove -- not to mention his Unabomberesque "Earth in the Balance" -- have established Gore as a bona fide wonk. And Gore will be able to credibly cite the administration's first-term accomplishments on the economy and the deficit, in response to accusations that he has shown too much profile and not enough courage. Expect Gore to parade the economy around like a show pony, arguing -- perhaps convincingly -- that it's so very, very pretty only because of the administration's controversial budget bill of 1993.

There is one other item of ammunition Bradley may have the opportunity to use in a salvo against Gore -- the U.S. military presence in the Balkans. It's an issue that furthers the comparison between the Bradley-Gore race and the 1968 contest between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Robert F. Kennedy -- though Gore, to his credit, is certainly no Humphrey, and Bradley on his best day isn't RFK.

On the stump, Bradley talks about the importance of not undercutting our troops by questioning what they're doing there -- after which he questions what they're doing there. "It's always better to figure out how you're going to get out before you go in," he says to reporters after the Manchester event. "Our strategic relationships with Russia and with China are far more important than what happens in the Balkans," says the eight-year veteran of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Bradley was fairly dovish in the Senate, voting against authorizing the use of force in the Persian Gulf "at that time," he emphasizes, because he wanted to give sanctions more of an opportunity to work. And for all of Gore's domestic caution, Bradley is far more cautious than the veep
about exercising military force, feeling it's only justified "when our national interest is affected and our values are in play." Kosovo involves the latter, he implies, but not the former. While he withholds major criticism of the NATO mission, he does ask me -- rhetorically more than anything else -- "What is the national interest there?"

Just as McCain has distinguished himself among a field of waffling and isolationist GOP contenders by being a strong internationalist, so too Bradley may come to stand as the anti-war Democrat. As the United States becomes even more mired in the Balkans, it is certainly more than possible that American soldiers will start coming home in bags. Though it is way too early to predict, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Gore -- whose father lost his Senate seat largely because of his opposition to the Vietnam War -- may see his candidacy damaged for the opposite reason.

On the other hand, Bradley's pragmatism may end up seeming like the "indifference" Elie Weisel recently warned against in a speech at the White House. In Hanover, Bradley was asked by a Dartmouth student if he really meant to argue that our country's relationships with China and Russia are truly "more important" than putting an end to "ethnic cleansing." Bradley's answer -- essentially, "yes" -- didn't exactly draw applause. In fact, for all of Bradley's newfound personal warmth, it sounded rather cold.

Bradley knows that he needs to eat away at Gore's lead since, right now, he is regarded by many as the political version of the Washington Generals -- the team hired to regularly face off against (and lose badly to) the Harlem Globetrotters. The inequities between the two candidacies are stark. Gore plans on raising $55 million, while Bradley is shooting for less than half that, maybe $25 million at most. The New Hampshire Democratic Party has all but endorsed Gore, and Bill Shaheen -- an established state Democratic activist and husband of the popular governor -- is the state chairman for Gore 2000; Bradley's Granite State support is spotty and helmed by John Rauh and his wife, Mary, two well-meaning good-government types who themselves are both unsuccessful candidates for public office.

Gore's organization will be tough to beat, acknowledges Rauh. "Of the top 100 Democrats in New Hampshire, almost all are with Gore," he says. Gore's been very active with the state Democrats, Rauh explains. "He worked very hard this year to elect a Democrat state Senate, so there's lots of loyalty and respect and friendship."

But Gore is increasingly marked as vulnerable. "Is Gore the politician that Clinton is? Absolutely not," political observer Charlie Cook says. "Does he bond with people in the same way? Do people feel a warmth about him? Are people curious and interested in him? No. So there's an opening there."

Additionally, Cook says, people are always longing for change after eight years of one president's rule. Gore's status quo position allows Bradley, an 18-year Hill veteran, to profile like an outsider -- which is laughable on its face, though his charm and underdog status let him get away with it (a little). In Manchester, it was hard to listen to Tipper Gore argue that this country needs a radical shift -- "We need revolutionary change in our schools," she said -- and not think: "Your husband's in a place to make that change. So get to work!" Of course, such is the curse of any incumbent VP trying for his boss's job, as Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey both learned. Gore is hoping for the success George Bush enjoyed following Ronald Reagan, although his one-term presidency in some ways confirmed the political taint of the vice presidency.

But for right now, most of the equation adds up well for Gore, whose assets are considerable: an expansive organization and a hell of a lot of cash. While the intimacy of the New Hampshire primary allows for populist upsets -- like Pat Buchanan's surprising showings in '92 and '96, for instance -- the question for the state's Democratic voters may end up not being "Why Bradley?" so much as "Why not Gore?"

Apparently Bradley is doing a decent job in answering that question. A Reuters/Zogby International poll released this week "showed Gore leading Bradley by only 52 percent to 35 percent among likely Democratic voters." Bradley's support was with voters who were younger, suburban and earning more than $35,000 a year. And Reuters added, "Interestingly, 59 percent of Democrats said that whether a candidate had the support of President Clinton would not be a factor in their decision."

The Weekly Standard's William Kristol sees the poll numbers as unimpressive for Gore. "His boss has an 80 percent approval rating, most Americans think the country's going in the right direction, this is the most successful Democratic administration in a long time, and he's beating Bradley by what? Twenty points? That's not so great for an incumbent.

"If Bradley comes close to Gore in Iowa, and beats him in New Hampshire, then he's got a real shot," says Kristol, who points out that the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucus are quickly followed by primaries in New York, New Jersey and California -- all states where Bradley enjoys a fair degree of popularity.

Bradley has also been at a tremendous advantage ever since Sens. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and John Kerry, D-Mass., et al. wimped out. "All the Republican candidates in 1996 spent millions and millions and millions of dollars, and spent day after day in New Hampshire, trying to get into the final two with Dole -- and Bradley just starts there," points out Charlie Cook. "All he needs is one person to screw up and he's the nominee. It's an enviable position to be in, to be the only alternative. And Al Gore is not the most sure-footed front-runner we've ever seen."

And Democrats take note: "As for a pure political prognosis," Kristol adds, "Bradley's got the same moderate-to-liberal positions without the same baggage." If he were to get the nomination, Kristol admits, "it'd bad for the Republicans."

Whether it's false modesty or genuine concern, no one in the Gore camp will say anything on the record to give the impression that they think it's all sewn up for their man. "Bill Bradley will be a very tough competitor, and we're taking his campaign very seriously," says New Hampshire Gore chieftain Shaheen. "He's not a candidate who can't raise money -- he certainly can," Shaheen says.

But even if Bradley ends up surpassing expectations at the bank, as well as in New Hampshire and Iowa, Gore's war chest will allow him easy layups with plenty of time on the clock, while Bradley will be at half-court forcing shots at the buzzer. No matter how wise or charismatic Gary Hart was in 1984, he just couldn't cut through Walter Mondale's committed delegates and cash-on-hand. Eight years of lining up your ducks beats poetry and nuance every time.

In Keene two Saturday nights ago, for instance, both Gore and his wife were no-shows, while Bradley got there early and spoke at length to the crowd. That didn't stop Cheshire County Democratic Committee vice chairman Greg Martin -- at the door of the Keene State College dining commons collecting the $8 for the spaghetti dinner -- from sporting a "Gore 2000" button. "I think he's done a great job as vice president," Martin says. "He has been far and above the best [vice president] that we've ever had."

By Jake Tapper

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

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