Street-fighting man

In a joint appearance with Sen. Bill Bradley in Iowa, Al Gore comes out swinging.

Published October 10, 1999 10:13AM (EDT)

He may have made his way to Iowa by way of Air Force Two, and from Fort Dodge to Ames to Des Moines via a 16-vehicle motorcade, but Vice President Al Gore continued making like a rabid underdog this weekend, his jaws locked on the ankles of his surprisingly threatening challenger, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

Energized like a speed-freak trucker driving cross country, Gore sounded the themes that he hopes will help him defeat Bradley, as the two men shared a stage for the first time outside of D.C. at the Iowa state Democratic party's Jefferson Jackson Dinner Saturday night. Also for the first time in the two-man race for the Democratic nomination, there was excitement and conflict and, yes, even a tangible sense of hostility in the air.

Gore tenaciously, enthusiastically called on Bradley to debate him every week all fall, showing an energy heretofore unseen to many voters and reporters who had previously questioned whether or not he has a pulse. Citing issue after issue where he feels his record is strong and Bradley's weak (ethanol, Reaganomics, vouchers), Gore called on his cheerleaders in the audience to "Stay and fight!" for future liberal battles -- a thinly veiled reference to Bradley's retirement from the Senate in 1996, as well as his brief flirtation with third-party politics.

In response, Bradley, essentially shrugged and rolled his eyes, not deigning to condescend to the vice president's desire to turn the Democratic presidential nomination into a street fight.

Gore's relentless enthusiasm and his lust to enter into the political fray painted a stark contrast with Bradley's speech and style and, indeed, the two campaigns each man is waging. When all is said and done about the boring clones Democrats will have to choose from, the two men laid out a very distinct choice for voters.

Gore is rah-rah and boo-hiss and ready to scrap; he delivers direct appeals to union members and farmers and party loyalists; he walks into a room and wants to shake everyone's hand and tell them "what's in my heart."

Bradley is cool and thoughtful, bespectacled and remote; he wants politics to go in a lofty direction; he seems to only reluctantly mingle with the riff-raff.

Some Iowans found Bradley refreshing and Gore cloying and more than a little disingenuous. Others got juiced by Gore and scratched their heads at Bradley's icy professorial statesmanship.

Whatever, it made for some damn fine political drama, lapped up by the 3,000 party faithful who attended the Iowa Democratic Party's $60-a-plate chicken cordon-blech dinner.

The Gore camp is running a bit scared ever since polls of New Hampshire and New York Democrats showed Bradley pulling ahead of Gore, and FEC reports showed that the Bradley campaign raised more cash than it did in the latest quarter. So it's leaving nothing to chance -- not even the sign-posting competition that emerges at political events like this, with
highly regimented rules and regulations to ensure equal treatment to candidates. Before the allotted hour, Gore staffers fastened their signs onto long plastic poles sealed in cement buckets so they could just walk in and plop them down, scattering them like sentries at Buckingham Palace, while the Bradleyites scattered throughout with tape and posterboard, like high school juniors running for high school student association. "Organization, baby," said one Gore staffer. "It's how you win Iowa."

Indeed, Gore seems to be taking nothing for granted. A Sept. 20-22 Mason-Dixon poll of Iowa likely caucus-goers showed him beating Bradley 45 percent to 33 percent -- but, significantly, 22 percent of the voters remain undecided, and Bradley has been chipping away at what was once the vice president's 40-point lead. Memories of Gary Hart's momentum-building strong second place showing in '84 loom large. Gore wants to win here, and he knows that he has to win big.

Organizers of Saturday's event took great pains to ensure that the event was officially as neutral as Switzerland. Each campaign was allotted precisely 400 tickets, was forced to comply with rules regarding sign posting, and the speaking order was determined by a coin flip. But Bradley's people groused the Jefferson Jackson Dinner was, in Bradley's words, as neutral as "the Boston Garden in the seventh game." Each campaign may have been given only 400 tickets, but entrenched blatantly pro-Gore Democratic groups like organized labor got additional tables to canvas on Gore's behalf, Bradley staffers said. In the end, admission and sign-posting rules were skirted or applied unevenly, they added. All part and parcel of "old school" politics Gore exemplifies.

"Underdog" Gore flew in to Iowa Saturday morning, and was joined by an array of Iowa Democratic officials as he hopped from event to event, including Sen. Tom Harkin, Rep. Leonard Boswell, former Rep. Berkley Bedell, the secretary of agriculture, the secretary of state and the state attorney general.

Introduced by the chorus of the O'Jays' "Love Train" at every event, Gore exuded no love for Bradley or his record. In the days and hours leading up to the dinner, Gore continually chawed on Bradley for voting for Reagan's spending cuts in 1981 and also for leaving the Senate in '96, "walk(ing) away from a fight" against the then-newly elected GOP majority.

"I think that vote in favor of the Reagan slashing budget cuts -- that raised child poverty, that hurt public education, that hurt access to health care -- I think that was the single most defining vote for Democrats of the last 20 years," Gore said to reporters Saturday afternoon. "I voted against it. I fought against it."

In truth, Bradley was one of the few senators who voted for Reagan's spending cuts but against the Reagan tax cuts. Bradley spokeswoman Anita Dunn noted that if every senator had voted the way Bradley had, Reagan's multi-trillion dollar deficit would never have piled up, and the budget would have been balanced. Many deficit hawks have special reverence for the Bradley position.

As for Bradley's 1996 retirement, Dunn said, seven other Democratic senators -- many of whom have endorsed the vice president -- joined Bradley in checking themselves out of the game that year. Would Gore have such harsh criticism for them, she asked.

Gore staffers also blasted Bradley for threatening to leave the Democratic Party in 1996. Out promoting his bestselling memoir "Time Present, Time Past," Bradley said he was "baffled" and "bewildered" by President Clinton's indifference to race and the problems of the middle-class, and he hinted that he might challenge Clinton.

"Right now, I haven't ruled it out in 1996," Bradley said to CNN on Jan. 30, 1996. "An independent candidacy has a lot against it, a lot of difficulty with the money, as well as some other institutional obstacles. But if one was going to run in 1996, you wouldn't run a conventional campaign, anyway."

Additionally, Gore staffers noted, Bradley participated in conference calls with six other self-disenfranchised pols -- former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, former Sen. Paul Tsongas, former Sen. Gary Hart, former Gov. Lowell Weicker, former Rep. Tim Penny, Maine Independent Gov. Angus King and former presidential candidate John Anderson -- to rap about forming a third party.

In a press conference after his presidential announcement speech, Bradley said that reports about the conference calls are overblown. "I don't think there's been any other time that more has been made about less than that phone call," he said, "until possibly, this press conference."

But just before the Saturday's dinner, Dunn freely acknowledged that towards the end of Bradley's third term, in '95 and '96, he was thoroughly disillusioned with politics, especially with the increasing influence of big money. That's what makes him so different and appealing, she said, the very fact that he would be so open to walking away from organized party politics -- though she insisted it was never more than a flirtation.

In speech after speech on Saturday, Gore reminded Iowans that -- as a senator from agricultural Tennessee, as well as vice president -- he has always been active on behalf of farmers. Bradley, he said without naming him, was a "Johnny-come-lately" to the issue.

This is also an attack that the Gore campaign hopes will also serve to stain Bradley's puritan anti-politician frock, as it highlights Bradley's flip-flop in support of ethanol subsidies. Such a blatant switch, Gore strategists think, is typical of any career politician. And if Bradley is seen as just another double-talking pol, then their man doesn't look so bad by comparison, they hope, and the foundation of Bradley's appeal will wash away.

Bradley's explanation of his new love for ethanol is that the role of a senator is significantly different than that of a president. Now, he has said, he has to "see the whole country," whereas as a New Jersey senator, he had to tend to more parochial interests -- he once supported an experimental school voucher program, for instance.

It's a sort of "the New Jersey devil made me do it" defense, and the Gore campaign is banking on it not finding many takers.

Gore's stump speech is now tailor-made to poke at Bradley's soft underbelly. On ethanol, Gore frequently brings up a 50-50 Senate tie he had to break against an amendment that would have eliminated an EPA mandate in support of ethanol, "probably the most anti-Iowa amendment in the last 20 years." As an aside, Gore likes to smugly say that he won't tell you who offered the anti-ethanol amendment.

Guess whose amendment it was.

Bradley refused to return fire. "To the extent that someone is confident in their own vision of the future, they don't need to resort to the darts," Bradley elliptically told reporters in a precinct walk Saturday morning. "I think I can talk about the future in a way that's compelling enough" without resorting to attacks, he said.

Nor did Bradley give any truck to the idea that the vice president was in any way the David, and he the Goliath. "There is no question that we are up against an entrenched power," Bradley said to reporters. "When a candidate has the president of the United States standing by his side, loyally -- as he has stood by his side -- and he has the Democratic National Committee, most of the Democratic fund-raisers, arrives in Air Force Two, and is ahead by 15 points nationally, well, that's entrenched power. All I have is the people."

In his Jeff-Jack dinner speech, Bradley called on Gore to join him in waging "a campaign that honors voters. But to do that, it takes discipline. It takes discipline to be positive."

Bradley recalled the noble calls to service Jack and Bobby Kennedy made to the nation, Jimmy Carter "like a clean rushing mountain stream, washing out the stench that was the Nixon years," the hope for universal health care brought by then-Gov. Bill Clinton. Comparing his race against the veep with the home run contest between the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire and the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa, Bradley noted that the clean competition drove each man to excel.

"Why can't American politics be like that?" Bradley asked. "Why can't it be vice president Al Gore pushing Bill Bradley and Bill Bradley pushing vice president Al Gore so that the national interest can benefit?"

But Gore wasn't having any of it. Saying that McGwire and Sosa slugged it out on the diamond -- and not amongst their own teammates in the dugout -- Gore renewed his call for weekly issues-based debates with Bradley. Making use of his clip-on microphone, striding Oprah-like from the podium, Gore tried to pin Bradley down on agreeing to weekly debates. "Let's have one every week!" he said, the packed and stacked house cheering. "What about it? Let's have one on agriculture right here in Iowa! What about it Bill?"

"If the answer is yes, stand up and wave your hand!" Gore, somewhat bizarrely, said. "This year! A debate every week! Seriously!

"Let's get real about this," he said, before launching into one of the more unreal -- or un-Gore-like, at least -- moments of this campaign.

"The polls don't mean very much," Gore continued. "The way I read the polls, I'm ahead in Iowa, you're ahead in New Hampshire, I'm ahead in California, you're ahead in New York. I welcome the fact that it is a close, hard-fought contest," he said, somewhat stretching the bounds of credibility. "I think that's good for our party. I think that's good for our battle against the Republicans in the general election. But you know, on the Republican side, they're blowing the limits off the big-bucks campaign contributions.

"Our one response has to be to draw more people toward the Democratic Party. We have a chance in this campaign with a close, hard-fought contest -- which I really welcome, I really welcome that -- because I think it gives us a chance to really demonstrate to the Republicans and show the American people how a campaign should be run, on the issues, with full debates, with an open discussion, to elevate our democracy. So I reiterate my challenge. And I hope that you will reconsider your decision to not accept that challenge. Because I think it really -- I'm serious -- I think it'd be very good for the party, I think it'd be very good for both of us."

Bradley might have mustered the raising of an eyebrow in response to Gore's exultant engagement, but he certainly didn't stand up and wave, and he certainly didn't accept the vice president's challenge. At the end of September, once Gore got panicky and started painting his as the insurgent outsider campaign, Bradley noted, "I haven't made it a habit to respond to every change of tactic by the vice president's campaigns. I have accepted a number of joint appearances invitations already, beginning next month in New Hampshire and look forward to more."

At the dinner, the candidates' discussion of the issues painted less of a fundamental contrast, with both men making clearly liberal Democrat appeals, though Bradley's address was aimed at the head, Gore's at the gut.

Bradley issued a challenge for strict gun control, including licensing and a ban on Saturday Night Specials, a comprehensive program to lift kids out of poverty, and initiate comprehensive health care for America's 45 million uninsured, a $55 billion-$65 billion plan for which he laid out on Sept. 26. He also made an appeal to racial unity, and acknowledged that, "quite frankly, I didn't know a lot about agriculture before January," though he insisted he is now on the program.

Gore hammered away on where he'd been on "the two most defining moments for Democrats in the last decade" which were -- surprise, surprise -- Reaganomics and the Republican revolution. He talked up his support for issues of direct appeal to key Democratic constituencies -- a little pro-choice stuff for the ladies in the audience, some anti-voucher declarations for the teachers, and a commitment to veto any anti-union measure that would come to his desk.

"I guaran-damn-tee it!" Gore, a NAFTA-supporter, yelled.

Gore's new stump speech is lighter on policy and heavier on personal narrative -- one of the changes initiated by his new advisor, former tobacco flack Carter Eskew. Gone are the soporific 15-bullet talking points. Instead, in between the Bradley ball-busting, voters are treated to the rags-to-riches story of Pauline LaFon, Gore's mother, one of the first women to graduate from Vanderbilt Law School -- in whose honor Gore pledges to fight for the rights of women. And about Al Gore Sr., who passed away in December, who was a teacher, then the Tennessee commissioner of labor, then a civil rights-supporting U.S. senator -- in whose honor Gore pledges to fight for teachers and unions and minorities.

If his Saturday in Iowa is any guide, Gore's better on the stump than he's ever been, and much more engaging and electric than any of his prospective Republican counterparts -- with the exceptions of the only two real orators in this race, Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes.

The basic speech is close to fully realized. It includes both anti-Bradley shots and slams on the GOP Congress -- and whatever fine mess they've gotten the country into as of late, whether the proposed 13th budgetary month, or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty shenanigans. Sprinkled throughout are funny stories and metaphors. "I just have one more anecdote and two brief vignettes," he said at one point, though it wasn't clear if he was speaking tongue-in-cheek.

Crowds seem impressed. "Who's your speech coach?" Anne Holmquest, a Buena Vista University speech teacher from Ft. Dodge, asked a Gore staffer. "He's so much better than he was two years ago!"

And with ravenous reporters smelling blood in the ocean, he was a coy wise-ass. After Gore kept saying that he wasn't "the kind of Democrat" who'd vote for Reaganomics or "walk away from a fight," one reporter -- trying to get Gore to fill in the blank with Bradley's name -- asked him what kind of Democrat would do such things.

"Hmmm," Gore smirked. "I see some hungry quotation marks looking for a pungent quotation."

Of course, as Gore finds his voice, Bradley staffers see their opponent as becoming even more slick. They feel that their boss's homespun Midwesterness is simply a better match for the current political zeitgeist.

Plus, the Bradley camp has a secret weapon: Bradley buddy and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton, the former Portland Trailblazer who blazed his own unique trail alongside Bradley in Iowa.

On Friday, one voter asked Walton what it was like to have been taught the game by legendary UCLA coach John Wooden. Walton picked up his cell phone, punched in Wooden's phone number, and put the voter on the phone with the Bruin folk hero -- reportedly winning a Bradley convert in the process.

At the Jeff-Jack dinner, Walton walked up to Gore and told him to get out of the race. "I'm with the winner," he told Gore.

When a dinner attendee asked Walton for his autograph, handing him Gore poster on the back of which he was to sign his name, Walton threw it on the ground and stomped on it.

At the Bradley post-dinner reception, which was every bit the brie-and-chablis PBS pledge-a-thon, I caught up with Walton, who seemed more than slightly lit. He was with Grammy winner Bruce Hornsby, who had his piano shipped in from Virginia, to play at the Bradley event.

"What'd you think of your man?" I asked.

"Tonight was the greatest night of Bill Bradley's life!" Walton said kind of menacingly, as he and Hornsby made their way to the elevator. "He was never hotter than he was tonight," Walton added.

Bradley's Olympic gold medal and two NBA championship rings speak otherwise, and I guess that showed on my face.

"Oh, you're not with that?" Hornsby said.

"He was great tonight!" Walton continued. "He was never hotter than he was tonight!" Walton said, pointing at me as the elevator doors slammed shut between us.

Less drunk Bradleyites conceded that Walton's analysis wasn't entirely on the mark.

"He honed in on some of the key core values of genuine interest to us," said Diane Kolmey of West Des Moines, a Bradley supporter. "Their two styles were so different."

But Bradley's rope-a-dope style of defense won't be enough in the long term. While Gore is certainly in trouble, Bradley's surge may be the best thing that ever happened to the vice president, reigniting his dormant campaign. Here in Des Moines on Saturday, Al Gore, the former somnambulant, plodding, methodical, uninspiring, unelectable automaton, proved one thing: He lives.

By Jake Tapper

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

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