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Where Did Bradley Go Wrong?
Many Believe Wounds Were Self-Inflicted

By Barton Gellman, Dale Russakoff and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 4, 2000; Page A01

When Bill Bradley ambled into the Keene, N.H., Bagel Works some 14 months ago--the first stop on the first trip of his presidential campaign--Susan Herman was waiting. Reaching around her arm-load of texts, the Keene State College professor gripped his hand with feeling and told him: "You're my man."

Attracted by a glowing biography, Herman projected hopes on Bradley as so many have done in the 39 years since admirers first wished him into the White House. She saw him as a man of high moral caliber, an intellectual, a liberal champion, an antidote to the prevailing corruption of politics. She signed on as a volunteer and organized three New Hampshire colleges for Bradley's campaign.

By the time the Feb. 1 ballot came, Herman had quit. Registered as an independent, she cast her vote in the Republican primary--for John McCain. The image she constructed of Bradley had given way to "just another politician," she said, adding: "The degree that I was energized was the degree to which I was crushed." Her reasons were particular, and other voters had their own. But in state after state where Bradley competed, the early momentum of his candidacy stalled.

As Bradley heads into a decisive round of primaries on Super Tuesday, he trails in 15 of 15 contests. Friends and supporters, mourning what many of them see as the inevitable, are looking backward already for explanations.

Whatever went wrong, say those around him, Bradley was the one who set it in motion. As throughout his Senate career, he remained largely immune to contrary advice. Friends, peers and staff members said he wanted to run his own kind of campaign more than he wanted to be president. That may account for his composure, in public and private, as his bid for the nomination appears to near its end.

Bradley trained his whole adult life, by an unsparing if self-imposed syllabus, to become president. When an inner voice declared him ready, Bradley repeated it aloud. A telling motif of his announcement speech, and of many appearances since, put that rationale in as many words: "My abilities match the national moment."

Bradley based his campaign on the premise that voters would recognize the truth of his self-appraisal. As a politician, Bradley had no Plan B. When he found he did not move voters on a national stage as he had moved so many individuals in private life, Bradley did not appear to want--or know how--to sell himself to the unconvinced.

"I'm sure you've heard him say, 'I feel I'm ready, and all I can do is offer myself to my country when I am ready, and it's up to the country to see whether or not they want to accept,' " his wife, Ernestine Schlant Bradley, said in an approving assessment last fall. She mimicked ferocity with a growl: "So for Bill, this is not: 'I've got to win.' It's just, 'Here I am, I'm offering myself.' "

That almost passive quality--arrogant or inexplicable to many commentators--is something else to insiders in his campaign. What they see is a principled refusal to run with the times.

"Successful campaigns for the last 15 years have been one of two things," said communications director Anita Dunn. "Campaigns have either used a huge amount of research to find out what voters want to hear--doing market research to find out what they want in a product, and becoming that product. . . . The other thing to do is to go destroy your opponent, to make them an unacceptable choice."

Bradley expressed his contempt for such methods, and drew an unspoken comparison on character, when he accused Vice President Gore in January of "politics as usual, and that's a thousand promises and a thousand attacks."

The result has been a candidate who must suffer his own supporters to describe him, as Silver Spring real estate executive Blair Lee did in an interview, as holding a "view of American politics which is somewhat stilted and perhaps unrealistic--and I mean that in a positive way."

Where some saw an excess of nobility in Bradley's run, others said he did not live up to the hero's image that came with his credentials--All-American, Rhodes scholar, Olympic champion, Hall of Famer, senator at the age of 35.

"It was like an illusion," said New York political consultant Norman Adler, who is not working in a presidential campaign. "There's no Bill Bradley there. The kinds of things we thought he was--the outsider, the reformer, the solution to the Clinton problem, the catalyst to bring independents and Democrats together--if he was ever those things, he is none of those things right now."

Strategic Errors

Many Bradley advisers and aides who spoke to reporters this week--anxious to lay the blame elsewhere, another campaign leader sourly observed--said that $20 million and one of the best biographies in politics were squandered by the obstinance of the candidate and the relative inexperience of his campaign team.

Bradley's campaign has committed such a string of strategic errors that Gore operatives took to gloating about the "Bill Bradley Political Malpractice Play of the Day."

For one, big enough perhaps to make others superfluous, Bradley came to believe he could win Iowa and transferred resources there from New Hampshire, where polls showed him ahead. Reinforcing weakness instead of strength, he bet his prospects on a quirky caucus system that nearly always rewards the party favorite. If campaign manager Doug Berman is to be taken at face value, Bradley also believed he could not follow McCain's tactical decision to skip Iowa because his motto--"respect the people"--committed him to run in every contest.

After winning neither of the first two states, Bradley's campaign had no plan to cope with the five weeks of dead air between Feb. 1 and Super Tuesday's quasi-national primary. Unlike Republicans, who held important interim contests in South Carolina and Michigan, a Democratic insurgent had no way to change the subject from early losses.

Months ago, one Bradley campaign official argued for making a play in the nonbinding Washington state primary, on Feb. 29, as a way of building momentum for March 7. But Bradley did not focus on the state until the final week--essentially cramming for an election--and by then Gore's party allies had the state wrapped up.

When Bradley decided belatedly to lash back at Gore, he declined to press him on what he knew was Gore's most vulnerable point--involvement in the Democratic fund-raising scandals of 1996. So doing, he relinquished the reformer's mantle to McCain.

Bradley and his campaign team made the further mistake of thinking they had basic interests in common with McCain, Democratic activists say. Only in the past week or so has he distinguished himself clearly from the conservative Republican. In January, when his political fortunes were far stronger than McCain's, Bradley agreed to join hands with him on campaign reform in a "summit of underdogs" in Claremont, N.H. Bradley participated in the belief--in hindsight, quite wrong--that both candidates would benefit from an increased turnout of independents. In the end, the voters had to choose, and they went overwhelmingly for McCain.

Bradley's top strategists were all longtime loyalists, which helped in the early days when his quest looked quixotic. And until recently, leaks from his campaign were rare. But after he proved to be a deft fund-raiser and Gore's campaign foundered, the lack of presidential experience in Bradley's camp hurt him badly, outside observers said.

For instance, veteran Democratic campaigners said, Bradley had no expert advice on staging political events, a prerequisite for generating television and newsmagazine images. When Bradley reached out to labor unions, he made the speech at a college, not a factory. He twice gave health care speeches in hospital cafeterias, where doctors--not photogenic patients--were his audience. Presented with a sweat shirt at a high school in Providence, R.I., Bradley turned his back to the cameras as he opened it.

Political veterans said the Bradley operation made poor use of some remarkable endorsements. Michael Jordan, possibly the most potent brand-maker in advertising, taped a testimonial for Bradley in December. The campaign, supposing Jordan could not help as much among heavily white electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire, did not air the ad until Bradley's prospects had long since peaked. In New York, once competitive but now apparently out of reach, Bradley did not begin airing a joint endorsement spot by filmmaker Spike Lee and former mayor Edward I. Koch until last night.

"If Bill doesn't win the nomination, the question of whether it's possible to do this shouldn't be answered by the fact that he didn't win," Dunn said. "I think one will also have to look at the campaign and whether the campaign itself could have been executed better."

Defensive since youth against the news media and the public at large, Bradley seemed to his traveling press to treat even applause as an intrusion. He remained a stranger to reporters who traveled with him for months. Those who approached him outside were restrained by his staff or scolded afterward. As he had in his playing days for the New York Knicks, Bradley ignored questions he deemed banal or repetitive, an occupational hazard in politics and basketball both. His traveling press corps took to referring to "the 'you moron' look."

There were times when Bradley declined to engage in the ordinary civilities of the campaign trail. One new reporter introduced himself in an elevator and received neither a handshake nor a hello. In December, when Bradley's campaign was going well, Bob Davis of the Wall Street Journal found himself sitting in front of Bradley in the first-class compartment of an airplane. He turned around and said he had an assignment on Bradley and hoped for a chance to talk. "I doubt it," Bradley replied, and moved his seat.

Emotionless Crusade

In deciding his campaign's themes, Bradley drew on the quest for higher purpose that had led him to a period of evangelical Christianity as a young man. Thousands of conversations in his travels had convinced him that Americans were hungry for "meaning beyond the material." He believed they yearned for a leader who could lift them out of self-interest and inspire them to identify with the welfare of all.

By Thursday night, when he spent close to $1 million in a single television chat, he had boiled down that aspiration to a single line: "I want to be president of the United States to use the power of that office to do good."

Bradley sought the flavor of a moral crusade in his campaign, but his political style is not heavy on emotion and energy. If any one issue demonstrated that, it was racial justice.

Bradley's credentials on race are unusual for a white politician. Encounters with racial injustice were transforming events in his youth. They drove him from his family's Republican politics, soured him on fundamentalist Christianity, and made a radical social critic of a small-town banker's son by the time he reached his twenties.

Bradley has won the hearts and confidence of black friends as diverse as author John Edgar Wideman, Harvard scholar Cornel West and Olympic basketball roommate Jim "Bad News" Barnes. Teammates and competitors in the NBA, who had ample reason to resent a player billed explicitly as the "great white hope" of his day, came away almost universally as admirers.

With all that, Gore leads Bradley among African Americans by a wider margin than among Democrats generally. Few issues make for a better display of the disconnect between the candidate and the man.

On a sweltering evening last August, Bill Bradley stripped down to shirt-sleeves and weaved to the stage of an overpacked Harlem lecture hall. Some of the folks there had known him since he tutored in an Urban League Street Academy in Harlem. Roger Wilkins, the historian and civil rights advocate, said that "nobody now running for president has the moral stature on this issue that Bradley has achieved."

"Racial unity for me is not a political position," Bradley said then. "It's who I am. It's what I believe. It's the thing I care most about."

Yet the next time he was in Harlem, Bradley allowed Gore to club him with quotes from Newark Mayor Sharpe James without replying. Even a senior aide to Gore said the campaign would not want to rest its credibility on James, but Bradley never pointed out that he had sponsored the appointment of the U.S. attorney who rocked the James administration with corruption investigations.

Clifford Alexander, former secretary of the Army, said he told Bradley from the beginning, " 'I'll support you for the principal reason you're righteous on race.' But righteous doesn't mean political. When challenged improperly, he's not going to go for the throat. He expects the facts to win out. They don't in campaigns."

Back in September, when Bradley's campaign was surging, more than 700 African American men and women mobbed a Washington reception he hosted during Congressional Black Caucus weekend. Young black congressional staffers were there in droves, dancing to the band EU and the Electric Slide, yelling out "Bill Bradley!" instead of "It's electric!"

It was one of those early political moments when anything seemed possible. As if to prove it, down on the dance floor, Marion Barry was grooving with his one-time archenemy, Sharon Pratt Kelly.

Bradley danced onto the stage, laughing, making fun of Cornel West's clothes, giving Kelly an ever-so-slightly suggestive compliment that set off hoots and cheers. It was a Bradley rarely seen in debates or speeches--which is to say, when most voters get to see him. "He's so comfortable!" one person after another marveled.

"I think we can win this campaign," Bradley said to thundering cheers, "and I want you to be a part of it because you truly believe that if I were president of the United States, the things that you care most deeply about in your life--you must believe that I will do those things. I will!"

What those things were, or how he would do them, he never said. As for the Black Caucus, none of its members showed. They all had endorsed Gore.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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