Despite a last-minute surge in support for former New
Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, Vice President Al
Gore racked up a slim but discernible victory Tuesday night in the New Hampshire primary.
On Monday, as Gore and his mammoth entourage of press and security wound
along New Hampshire's highways, making impromptu stops for
little bouts of retail politicking, Gore and his staff seemed to brim with
confidence. And in his appearances Tuesday morning, the vice president seemed
even more certain of his prospects. Conversely, by late in the day,
Bradley staffers had begun shifting gears, looking past New Hampshire and
toward their prospects on March 7, when New York, California and a host of
other states hold their elections -- a sure sign they anticipated defeat.
But Bradley's last-minute, lacerating attacks on Gore's character clearly
energized his committed supporters, though they also may have repelled some of the waverers he needed to claim if he was to overcome Gore's advantage. In addition, editorial opinion clearly tilted against Bradley once he went negative. Monday morning, before the
Gore bus left for the day, his campaign circulated Xerox copies of Bob
Herbert's New York Times column whacking Bradley for his turnabout on
negative campaigning. And many reporters seemed unconvinced that Bradley
could turn on a dime and successfully make the switch from high-road
campaigner to election street fighter.
Nevertheless, Bradley's senior staffers seemed to believe that
Bradley's switch to the negative was turning the tide in their favor. When
Bradley took off the gloves in last Wednesday night's New Hampshire debate, they believed, the campaign had reached a turning point. And late last week a
smattering of polls seemed to add real credence to their gut feeling. One
CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in particular showed Bradley drawing even with
Gore. But the subsequent results released late Sunday evening had Gore
back up by six points, making it seem that Bradley's movement was just a
blip and not a trend. And a host of subsequent numbers released Monday and
Tuesday seemed to confirm that trend.
Now that the voting has come to a conclusion and the primary march
moves on to big states like California and New York, one
question is how the media will spin Gore's win. Gore clearly fell well
short of the decisive win he needed to knock Bradley out of the race.
But the real story of who won and who lost in New Hampshire is a matter of
perception -- particularly the media's perception. And the close numbers
at the beginning of the night combined with the meagerness of the victory
in comparison to McCain's whipping of Bush makes it less of a victory for Gore than the numbers might otherwise indicate. As Bradley made clear in his concession statement Tuesday night, he's not about to drop out of the race. The central irony of Bradley's campaign is that for a candidate who made campaign-finance reform a centerpiece of his appeal, he has been able to raise so much money that he can now stay in the race as long as he wants.
Still, one thing that makes even his small New Hampshire victory
important for Gore is that the state is ideally suited for the kind of
campaign Bradley is waging. New Hampshire is flush with independents; it's in
Bradley's strongest region, the Northeast; it likes insurgent candidates;
and its Democratic Party is overwhelmingly white and generally
affluent -- precisely the demographic that is the strongest for Bradley in
most polls. If Bradley can't win here, Gore's campaign can reasonably
argue, it's hard to figure where he can win.
By making it close, Bradley will be able to hold off calls from the party
establishment that he should get out of the race. But Bradley has never
been much of a party man anyway, so those pleas and demands would likely
have fallen on deaf ears. In any case, the way the campaign has played
itself out thus far has already deeply isolated
the Bradley camp from the rest of the Democratic Party establishment. For
better or worse, the lifespan of the Bradley campaign will be almost
entirely up to Bradley himself. And Bradley actually has one more thing in
his favor. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have no major contests
until March 7. Like nature, the media abhors a vacuum. And
with more than five weeks to kill, the press will certainly start hunting
for ways to make the Democratic contest look interesting again.