Bradley Kicks off 2000 Campaign
By Ron Fournier
"I had a life before I got into politics and a life after I left the Senate," said the Hall of Fame basketball player who resigned from the Congress in 1996.
Bradley declared, "I am not really running against Al Gore," but the former New Jersey lawmaker repeatedly drew subtle distinctions between himself and the vice president, the son of a Tennessee senator who entered politics at a young age and rarely wandered far from Washington.
"I have not been a part of the partisanship that has shaped the debate the last couple years," he said, trying to position himself as an anti-Washington Democrat despite his 18 years in the Senate.
"I'd be better able to attract independents and Republicans in a general election," Bradley said.
He made the remarks at brief news conference on the first day of a three-day swing across New Hampshire, the site of the nation's first presidential primary a year from now.
Bradley kept to intimate settings where his soft-spoken charm and star appeal warmed audiences.
At a program for high school dropouts, pregnant 17-year-old Carmen Velazquez broke into tears as she explained why she left school. Bradley unfolded his 6-foot-5 frame from a tiny chair, leaned across a rickety wood table and gently touched her shoulder.
"Thank you for your courage in sharing that," Bradley said in a poignant exchange that invoked memories of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton stirring audiences in New Hampshire eight years ago.
The day's schedule included a visit to a local boy's club where Bradley planned to dust off his famous jump shot.
While off to a good start, Bradley still has a long way to go to defeat Gore.
The vice president enjoys the support of President Clinton, stands to benefit from a booming economy and has already lined up most of the party's top elected officials, activists and donors.
Though Bradley is respected, he may be outgunned.
"I view New Hampshire as a foregone conclusion," said New Jersey consultant Harold Hodes, a former Bradley backer who now supports Gore. "This is something Bradley should have done six years ago."
"If it's not broke, don't fix it," said New Hampshire activist Kris Durmer, another Gore backer.
Still, Bradley has a sports hero's glow, a solid record and a devoted following of activists – many of whom owe him their political careers. Gore and Bradley backers alike say the race is not in the bag.
"The vice president has been here a lot, he's very likable and has the support of many top activists in the state but ... that's just 100 votes and he needs a lot more than that," said Mary Rauh, who unsuccessfully ran for a New Hampshire congressional seat in 1998.
There also may be a big anti-Washington vein for Bradley to tap. Though few mentioned the Monica Lewinsky investigation specifically, several state Democrats said they're tired of the partisan tone in Washington.
"I don't think having the vice president come in would change anything," said Jim Gilmour, 53, sipping coffee at a Keene, N.H., bagel shop.
State party chairman Jeff Woodburn, who is leaving his post next month, has endorsed Gore. His replacement, Kathy Sullivan, says Bradley entered the race about as late as a challenger can.
She said there are still "second and third circle" activists on the market, but Gore has taken most of the top-tier talent.
After developing an anti-Gore message and raising money, Bradley still must mend fences with Democrats who took it personally when he left the Senate saying politics was broken and that neither party "speaks to the people where they live their lives."
Bradley served in the Senate after a 10-year career in the National Basketball Association. An academic and athletic standout at Princeton, Bradley was a Rhodes Scholar before turning pro.
Bradley said one reason he would make a better candidate than Gore is they have "different personal histories."
"I've been on the road for 30 years as a senator, a basketball player, a writer and a lecturer," he said.
In Congress, Bradley earned a reputation as a big-thinking moderate Democrat, a champion of tax reform, child nutrition programs and the Superfund cleanup bill.
He toyed with running for president in 1988 and 1992 but was twice gunshy.
Bradley promised not to accept political action committee donations or establish "sham" state fund-raising operations, but he declined to criticize Gore for fund-raising discrepancies.
"I don't think we'll respond to Senator Bradley," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said in California, where the vice president was campaigning on promises to lower crime, jobs and immigration.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press