Bradley's big day

Can the Democratic challenger come back from oblivion in New Hampshire?

Published February 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In the last full day of campaigning before the New Hampshire primary, Sen. Bill Bradley
eased up on the attacks against Vice President Al

fund-raising practices and integrity he'd unloaded Sunday. While Gore spent
most of the day on the grip and grin tour, Bradley's schedule was
jam-packed with
a morning meeting at Oracle, two town meetings, a get out the vote rally and a
handful of retail campaign stops at bowling alleys, restaurants and grocery
stores across the state.

Since Bradley took the gloves off and started hitting Gore
Wednesday night, he has been crisscrossing the state like a madman,
jamming in
so many events to his schedule that reporters have missed opportunities to file
their stories.

The week on the Bradley bus has at its best been organized chaos, and at its
worst, a reporter's nightmare. The campaign has frequently fallen victim to bad
directions and poor organization, sending caravans of buses rolling aimlessly
through the state. Just days ago, when the campaign inherited a new bus driver
who apparently had never been to New Hampshire, it was hard not to think of the
common miscues as a metaphor for the campaign itself, stumbling over easily
forseeable obstacles that somehow have managed to take Bradley completely by

And for all the flak George W. Bush has
received for limiting the media's access
to him,
Bradley has held only one press availability in the last five days.
Most likely because every time he holds a press conference, he is thrown off
message, and his heart problems end up on the nation's front pages. Of course,
that's essentially the same rationale Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker
gave for not
bringing Bush before the media, but somehow nobody has called Bradley on it.

But in these dog days of the New Hampshire primary, now that the excitement of
Gore bashing has gone from the campaign, there is nothing else for a
reporter to
do but sing along with the Bradley stump speech and wait for Election
Day. Since
Bradley keeps such a rigorous schedule of town hall meetings and campaign
rallies, reporters traveling with the candidate get real familiar
with Bradley's
riffs, even if we don't get too familiar with the candidate himself.

Bradley's stump speech is made up of a handful of anecdotes used to
highlight his
message that lobbyists are evil, Gore plays dirty and Bradley is the
only candidate in this race who cares about poor people. There's "The Shootout
at Gucci Gulch," Bradley's tale of corporate greed in which he consistently and
inadvertently misquotes a book title about the corrupting influence of money in
Washington. (The book, by Jeffrey Birnbaum, is called "Showdown at Gucci Gulch.")

Then there is the "Celtic fans for Bradley" joke, the punch line being
that Gore's
negative attacks pale in comparison to the character assassination Bradley suffered at
the hands of Celtics play-by-play announcer Johnny Most when he played for
the New York Knicks. And not to be cynical or callous, but if I
hear the story
about the child who apologized to his mother for getting strep
throat, or the kid
who missed breakfast one more time, I just may throw someone's cell
phone through
a window.

There is no doubt that among reporters in New Hampshire, the McCain bus is the
hot ticket. The others are simply tests of endurance.

But there are still some surprises along the campaign trail that are not caused
by dying cell phones, bad advance work or technological glitches.
Like Monday, at
the Derry Opera House, when more than 500 people came out to hear
Bradley speak.
Problem was, the main hall only held 250. The fire marshals restricted access,
driving people instead to a smaller room downstairs where the audio from the
speech was being piped in over a huge loudspeaker.

The scene could have been orchestrated by Bradley himself. More than 100 people
sat silently as Bradley's now-familiarly sleepy voice filled the room. As he
talked about universal health care and American storytelling, you could almost
hear the fireplace crackling in the background like some sort of 1936

After having spent days watching Bradley give his speech, just standing
in that room
and listening to him speak added a measure of what can only be described as
gravitas. Bradley's slow cadence and deliberate tone is made for
radio. For more
than 15 minutes, a room full of adults, children and two animal rights
protesters in pink, oversized pig suits sat attentively and listened.
Bradley had
full command of the room in a way I had never seem him have with
voters with whom
he is sharing space.

If this election were going to be decided via radio address, I have little doubt
that Bradley would win hands-down. While he's famously uninteresting
to watch on
the stump, the sound of his words undeniably held a strange power
over that room.
Bill Bradley is a radio candidate running for president in a video age.

As the week comes crashing to a close, Bradley's campaign does seem genuinely
excited by his weekend comeback. Of course, following a candidate can lead to
Stockholm syndrome, so I don't trust my ability to separate
campaign spin from
reality. But after weeks of stumbling, Bradley's revival has made victory at least
plausible. This time last week, he was trailing by as much as 12 points in some
polls. Tuesday, new polls are expected to show the
Democratic primary in a statistical dead heat.

If Bradley wins here Tuesday, he will get a sizable media bounce. The
next major
test is five weeks away, when California, New York and 12 other states all
go to the polls on March 7. That day, which the Bradley campaign refers to as
national primary day, will likely decide who the Democratic
presidential nominee
will be. And the odds are still good that that person will be Al Gore.

But Monday, Bradley was feeling good. In the morning he was in high spirits,
telling radio DJ Don Imus that Gore was "squealing like a stuck pig" as a
result of his new campaign offensive. Later he threw snowballs at
reporters as he
shoveled snow from the driveway of a New Hampshire hardware store.

While the image of Bradley shoveling snow would have made for good preelection
night television, the campaign did not bring along any TV crews to
record it. In
the words of one reporter on the Bradley bus, "A candidate at a photo
op without
a [television] camera is like a tree falling in the forest with nobody around."
If Bradley loses New Hampshire, he'll have a lot more quiet,
camera-free moments
to look forward to in the weeks to come.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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