When is a loss not a loss?

Bill Bradley spins a close second into a moral victory.

Published February 2, 2000 4:00PM (EST)

Groundhog Day
came early to New Hampshire this year, as Punxsutawney Bill
crawled out of a 15-point hole in the polls to finish just behind Al Gore in the New Hampshire primary.

Although Bradley once had hoped to win this state, his respectable showing Tuesday night will ensure that he at least casts a shadow on the Democratic presidential race and sticks around for six more weeks of tough
campaigning, taking the Democratic primary fight almost into the spring.

What Bradley needed Tuesday was a media victory, and he appears to have
achieved his goal. Though he lost the state, Gore inflicted only a partial wound,
unable to stick the dagger in the former New Jersey senator in the way the vice
president had hoped.

Still, the perception that Bradley came back from the dead, though late Tuesday night he trailed Gore by four points, is an example of the dizzying media spin that makes it hard to interpret what really happened in New Hampshire. It's inescapable to conclude that the media first exaggerated Bradley's climb, then his decline, and is now hyping his comeback because it makes for a better story. Looking at the hordes of media operatives that descended on New Hampshire, it's clear that no one can afford for the Democratic primary to be over before it really began.

Certainly Bradley himself was acting like Tuesday night was a victory party. Taking the stage to the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," Bradley vowed to fight
on. "We have made a remarkable turnaround, but there is still a tough
fight ahead," he said, sending his supporters into a frenzy. After a brief
concession to Gore, Bradley quickly returned to offense saying, "We're
smarter and better prepared and we'll continue to fight."

And to prove he still has some fight left in him, Bradley has planned a frenzied
travel schedule for the next three days. He plans to visit
Connecticut, New York, California, Maryland and Florida, as a signal to the Gore
campaign that the challenger is in this race at least for the next month.

Bradley needed to do something in New Hampshire to prove he was still a
legitimate candidate. In Iowa, he dumped nearly $2 million into the caucuses
there, and wasted time that would have been better spent shoring up his temporary lead in New Hampshire.

In just the week since his overwhelming defeat in Iowa, Bradley has see-sawed in polls and in the media's appraisal. By Sunday night, there seemed to be genuine optimism within the Bradley camp that their man was closing the gap, having stepped up his attacks against Gore.

But by high noon on Election Day, optimism seemed notably
absent from the campaign. Bradley stood awkwardly in front of a polling booth in
Portsmouth Tuesday, barely masking his disdain for reporters who lobbed softball
questions his way. He stood silently stonewalling, caught between his supporters
and supporters of Al Gore, who were engaged in a political cheerleading
competition, trying to chant the other side down.

Bradley shook hands with voters as they trickled into Portsmouth Middle School,
which had been turned into a polling place. Upstairs, a small pack of teenage
girls giggled and flashed their metallic smiles at the Democratic candidate,
pounding on the Plexiglas, second story window. Bradley managed to pump his fists
in their direction, then turned away, squinting into the sunlight and ignoring
reporters' questions.

On his way back to the van, his final New Hampshire campaign stop, he stopped to
shake the hand of a woman holding a John McCain placard. "You've got a good man
there," Bradley said. The woman's husband snapped Bradley a salute as the
candidate ducked into the van and was whisked away.

Meanwhile, in Portsmouth, his campaign staff was already shifting into spin mode, telling reporters: We don't
need a win, just a strong showing. The real test will come on March 7. That is
the true national primary, the true test.

Just before election results started pouring in, the campaign made a feeble
attempt to cushion any possible blow the election returns might inflict. The
campaign released an open letter, from Bill to Al, inviting the vice president to participate in a
debate this coming Sunday on "Meet the Press." While Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser
was spinning the letter as "what's best for the country," it simply sounded like
a letter penned by a candidate who was running out of options.

Bradley still faces long political odds, and the pundits and critics will amplify
these in the five weeks before the March 7 contests. There will more examination of
Bradley's aloofness and lack of retail campaigning skills. We will hear "the
entrenched power analysis": that Gore has the full advantages of the power of the
White House behind him as well as the support of most Democratic Party
operatives and elected officials. And as the campaign moves into states where
party machinery will be more important than it is in New Hampshire, it is still
difficult to imagine how Bradley could possibly win this thing.

If nothing else, with Punxsutawney Bill and Republican Sen. John McCain as the
symbolic weathermen of the new political season, New Hampshire voters have put
the coronation ceremonies on hold in both political parties. The coming weeks
will show whether this exercise is simply a ritualistic aberration, or whether
they truly foreshadow what is to come in the weeks ahead.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Al Gore