Bradley gets riled

Finally, Bradley shows his aggressive side and Gore goes on the defensive.

Published January 28, 2000 10:46AM (EST)

In the closing days before the New Hampshire primary, former Sen. Bill Bradley now begins his speeches by, for all practical purposes, calling Vice President Al Gore a liar. Bradley defends the acts as political self-defense, but they have been the most pointed attacks in the presidential campaign to date. And ...

"Over the last four months, I've had my positions misrepresented. I think there's been a lot of misleading statements made by Al Gore," Bradley told a group of seniors here Friday morning. "If a candidate doesn't tell you the truth in a campaign, how do you trust that candidate as president? If a candidate doesn't care about you enough to tell you the truth in a campaign, how do you expect that candidate to care enough about you to fight for health care, to fight for good education policy. If a candidate doesn't respect you enough in a campaign to tell you the truth, then how will that candidate, when he's president, respect you enough to fight for campaign finance reform?"

Four days before voters here go to the polls, Bradley has made integrity and character the focal points. He first employed the strategy during the final New Hampshire debate between the two Wednesday, and it comes as polls show his support continuing to slide. Bradley, who once held a slight lead over the vice president in New Hampshire, now trails Gore by 18 points, according to a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll.

Staffers for Bradley dismiss those numbers as unreliable and say polls lag far behind the current thinking of this notoriously fickle electorate. The USA Today poll was taken in the days leading up to and immediately following Gore's impressive victory in the Iowa caucuses, and before Wednesday night's debate.

Bradley continued his sweeping attacks on the vice president, including hammering Gore's record on abortion, saying that while in Congress, Gore had "an 84 percent right-to-life voting record, which is fine. Everyone should evolve, but at least acknowledge where you came from. I believe that when he says he always supported Roe vs. Wade, that's not correct and that's not true."

On a radio talk show Thursday, Gore said that he has always been pro-choice, but acknowledged that at one time, he did not support public funding for abortion clinics. He has since modified that position.

Gore's campaign dismissed the charges as desperate tactics employed by a candidate on the ropes. Defending his pro-choice position, the campaign released a statement by New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen announcing a coalition of women endorsing Gore, and another letter signed by a roster of Gore's former congressional peers solidly supporting Gore's claims as a pro-choice candidate.

But Bradley wasn't done. He also took a shot at President Clinton, who used Thursday night's State of the Union Address as an opportunity to prop up his vice president. When asked about the president's speech, Bradley dismissed it as a speech of "a thousand promises," typical of what Bradley calls "the old politics."

"One thing the president did not say among his thousand promises, he did not say we should have universal health care for all Americans," he said

The town meetings advertised on the campaign schedule are a far cry from the town meetings held in the early stages of the campaign. Those were often intimate gatherings set in people's living rooms, a way for candidates to introduce themselves to voters. At this stage, "town meetings" are little more than campaign pep rallies. Most of the people in attendance, like teacher Peg Murphy, are here not to make up their minds, but to demonstrate support for their candidate. And it helps if their candidate is pumped up.

"I like that he's fighting back," Murphy said. "I just hope it's not too late."

Friday afternoon at the Newport Opera House, Bradley picked up the endorsement of Lowell Weicker, former U.S. senator and governor of Connecticut, who was mentioned as a former presidential candidate himself after being lobbied by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura to run for the Reform Party nomination.

Weicker was also part of the so-called Gang of Six, a group of moderate Republicans and Democrats who huddled in 1995 to try to focus on a presidential candidate who would offer a political alternative to Bill Clinton, considered too liberal, and to Newt Gingrich, whose House brought the federal government to a standstill for nearly two months.

Although Bradley has now repositioned himself as the liberal alternative to Al Gore, he still earned the endorsement of Weicker, who served in the Senate as a Republican until 1992, when he was elected governor as an independent. He did not run for a second term.

In the small town of Newport, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., a staunch Bradley supporter, repeated and amplified Bradley's earlier attacks against Gore and called Weicker's endorsement "a crucial moment in this campaign." Indeed, Weicker's endorsement was choreographed to coincide with the push for New Hampshire independent voters, the state's largest voting block. Polls here show Bradley and Republican Sen. John McCain with the strongest support among New Hampshire independents, and both view independent voters as critical to their campaigns.

In that respect, there is something of a McCain/Bradley race underway, though Bradley rarely mentions the Arizona senator on the stump. As he has throughout this campaign, Bradley relied on his surrogates to levy the harshest attacks on his opponents, while he himself was making fast break for the moral high ground.

So it was up to Weicker. He told the crowd of his position on the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s, and of the flak he took from fellow Republicans for being an early advocate for Richard Nixon's resignation or impeachment. He then made an explicit appeal to independents still caught between Bradley and McCain, saying, "Please do not confuse independence with the Republican Party."

Weicker then picked up Bradley's attack on Gore's character. A day after Gore basked in the glow of Clinton at the State of the Union, Weicker tried to link Gore to Clinton's myriad scandals and alluded to Gore's own campaign fund-raising scandals. Weicker said Bradley remained a man of impeccable character, while "the Clinton/Gore administration was doing their thing." He also praised Bradley's emphasis on health care, saying, "eight years ago, the health care ball was passed to the Clinton/Gore administration. You know what happened? It was a total bust."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Abortion Al Gore Democratic Party