Bradley's Agenda Places Gore on Defensive
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 1999; Page A2
JOHNSTON, Iowa Bill Bradley's hard-edged strategy for taking on Vice President Gore in the battle for the Democratic 2000 presidential nomination emerged over the weekend as the former New Jersey senator campaigned in this state.
Bradley portrayed Gore as part of a politically cautious Washington elite and a politician of questionable viability in the general election.
In addition, Bradley has sought to capitalize on liberal discontent with the Clinton-Gore administration's centrist and small-bore policy initiatives by asserting he will take "bold" steps to reduce child poverty, to insure the uninsured and to invest in the most vulnerable of the very young.
Bradley's approach has already elicited a response. His critique prompted the vice president to defend his populist credentials as a country boy who learned how to "clean out hog waste with a shovel" and "plow a steep hillside with a team of mules"--episodic farm experiences ridiculed by the Republican National Committee and the influential Des Moines Register.
On his fourth post-announcement visit to Iowa, the first state to pick delegates, Bradley fleshed out a series of campaign themes.
While rejecting ideological labels, the three-term senator pressed issues that would place him on the liberal side of the spectrum. His top priorities would be to address the needs of the "one in four children who are in poverty," to "deal with the 43 million Americans who don't have health insurance" and to "invest in children zero to 5." Bradley would not support increases in military spending as large as those proposed by the Clinton administration.
Iowa Democratic caucus-goers are substantially more liberal than voters generally. Many voice at least modest discontent with the centrism of the Clinton-Gore administration.
Denigrating administration approaches, Bradley said, "We are at a time when the idea of winning an election by simply nickeling and diming it, by simply using a focus group phrase or a small program that rhetorically is strong but won't make a real difference on the ground is past. I think we need to do some bold thinking."
As every campaign stop, Bradley brightened in the knowledge that he has annoyed Gore with his answer to the questions: how do he and Gore differ, and why reject Gore, the heir-apparent?
One major difference, Bradley said, "is leadership style. When I was in the Senate, I used to take big complex issues--taxes, international trade, international finances--and put a structure of reform around them and then push for that reform. Or I took issues that are very volatile, like race, and tried to play to our better angels. Each of those were kind of risky endeavors. I think he has been more cautious."
Another difference, Bradley said "is life experience. I grew up in a small town in Missouri and had a life before I got into politics and after I left the Senate," Bradley told inquirers. "I think the vice president has had much of his life in Washington."
And, in the deepest insult one can deliver to a primary competitor, Bradley suggested that Gore could fail in the general election: Electability "ultimately will be an issue with the [Democratic] electorate. One would assume you want to have a winner, and I think one of the things I've discovered is, you look at the polls and he is not doing well."
The usual reaction of a front-runner would be to decline to respond to such comparisons, refusing to dignify them. Gore chose otherwise.
In addition to boasting to the Register of his talents shoveling hog manure and plowing hillsides with a mule team, Gore declared that his dad taught him "how to clear land with a double-bladed ax. . . . How to take up hay all day long in the hot sun." Gore then wondered "if Senator Bradley has had any of those life experiences."
Although Gore's family owned a working farm in Carthage, Tenn., Gore set himself up for a counterattack, not by Bradley but by the Republican National Committee. The RNC quickly found and widely distributed a quote from a 1994 New Yorker article, just the kind of material that will serve Bradley best if it becomes public currency without Bradley's participation:
"Gore was the son of politics, a child of Washington where his father served for 32 years. . . . The family residence was an apartment in the elegant Fairfax Hotel, which was owned by a Gore cousin; young Al walked across the street every morning to the Cosmos Club, where a bus picked him up for the ride to Washington's most elite prep school, St. Albans."
And finally, without Bradley having to lift a finger, the Register ran a front page cartoon, "American Gorethic," showing the vice president in bib overalls under his suit, pitchfork in hand, wife by his side, as he declares: "I was born with a manure shovel in my hand, and spend my days behind a team of mules, and my nights inventing the Internet."
While Bradley may have won this early skirmish, he and Gore are both sons of privilege. Both are Ivy Leaguers (Gore went to Harvard, Bradley to Princeton), and Bradley's father was the majority stockholder in their hometown bank. For the moment, Bradley enjoys the protection of the underdog: Gore, said senior Bradley adviser William Robinson, "is the death star and we are the rebels," referring to the "Star Wars" movies. This position evaporates once a candidate takes the lead.
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