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  • Bradley's Presidential Bid Takes Off

    Activists say Bill Bradley has built ground organizations in several key states and is capitalizing on the vice president's weaknesses. (AP)
    By Thomas B. Edsall and Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Monday, July 5, 1999; Page A1

    What the experts said wouldn't happen apparently has happened: former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley has collected enough money and positioned himself strategically to mount a credible challenge to Vice President Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to strategists from both parties.

    Bradley's surprise performance in raising $11.5 million so far this year almost two-thirds the amount raised by the incumbent vice president has given him the respect crucial to elevating a long-shot, insurgent bid from fluke to real threat.

    "One hurdle he's overcome is the sense he was a vast underdog," said New Hampshire Democratic Chair Kathy Sullivan. "When you raise that kind of money, people are willing to take a look and say this guy's a real candidate."

    Already there are signs Bradley is sharpening his case to Democratic voters that Gore, trailing Texas Republican Gov. George W. Bush in the polls, cannot win the general election. Beginning in September, Bradley hopes to lay out an agenda that he says better represents the party's core commitment to social justice and eradicating poverty.

    And though his stump style can be lackluster, the former New York Knicks forward is generating sizzle and campaign money by appearing with other basketball greats such as Phil Jackson, new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, and ex-Boston Celtic John Havlicek.

    "This is going to be a great race here," said Iowa Democratic Chair Rob Tully, who oversees the first caucuses in the nation. "Both are doing extremely well; they have hired staffs that are seasoned and that have gone through the process before."

    By all accounts, Gore remains the strong favorite for the Democratic nomination. He leads in the polls, has more money and enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of party officials. Though the Gore team appears more concerned about Bush's early momentum, it is gathering opposition research to pounce on Bradley if his presidential platform does not fit his Senate record and he fails to deliver promised "big ideas."

    "We'll see how big they are," sniffed one of Gore's top message advisers.

    Yet there is a rustling among activists in both parties that at the same time Gore has had a string of glitches, Bradley's stealthy campaign has established some significant beachheads. Activists say Bradley has built ground organizations in several key early states and is moving to capitalize on a number of Gore's weaknesses.

    In Iowa, where a Des Moines Register poll published yesterday showed Gore favored by 64 percent and Bradley backed by 24 percent, Bradley has developed an "outside Des Moines" strategy based in part on the assumption that Gore, more than Bradley, will have difficulty hitting the state's small towns, where an accumulation of victories in precinct caucuses can offset institutional might. And in New Hampshire, Bradley is following the textbook path for success. "He's meeting voters 10, 20, 30 people at a time," Sullivan said. "That's retail politics."

    Bradley has not only established a presence in those make-or-break states but he has also begun building delegate slates in other states, an unexciting but necessary step that past insurgents failed to take. Of chief concern to the Gore camp is New York, where Bradley retains some of his hero status from his days on the basketball court and where the memory of Gore's disastrous 1988 campaign lingers.

    In addition, Bradley has been using new political tools ideally suited to a candidate without strong party backing: e-mail and the Internet. Senior campaign adviser Will Robinson said 13,000 to 15,000 people have signed up through the Bradley web site. Once signed up, prospective supporters are contacted by state volunteers and receive regular updates via e-mail.

    Bradley also has proven adept at finding events where he can "cheaply and effectively get his message out," as one admiring Democrat put it. He is scheduled to address the Unity: Journalists of Color convention this week and the Independent Insurance Agents of America's conference on minority hiring this fall both opportunities to present his views on race, one of his signature issues.

    "Bill Bradley is a credible candidate," said Ed Marcus, Democratic chairman in Connecticut, one of nine states holding primaries on March 7, the first "Super Tuesday." Marcus, who has endorsed Gore, invoked a basketball metaphor in saying Gore's drive to the nomination "is not going to be a layup."

    Strategically, the Bradley campaign is trying to take advantage of Gore's desire to move more to the center, in anticipation of a general election campaign against Bush. On a variety of issues, the campaign is reaching out to discontented liberal Democrats and bringing in strategists with ties to organized labor and liberals like Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), the only senator so far to endorse Bradley. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) plans to offer his official support today.

    On gun control, for example, Bradley has taken a far more aggressive stand than the Clinton-Gore administration, calling for a total ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of "Saturday night specials" and the registration and licensing of all handguns.

    "The fact that Gore's message is accentuating general election themes creates an opening for Bradley to be sort of more emphatic on some liberal positions and Democratic themes," said Geoff Garin, a neutral Democratic pollster. Bradley, in contrast, "can afford not to limit" his stands, Garin said.

    Despite Bradley's early success, almost everyone, including many Bradley supporters, consider Gore the heavy favorite. After all, he still has the most money, the most endorsements and maintains a significant lead in most polls.

    Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who worked on both the Walter F. Mondale and Bob Kerrey presidential campaigns, pointed out that in 2000, the large number of "super delegates" party officials, members of Congress and other elected leaders who will be automatically sent to the Democratic convention will be 20 percent of the total, and almost all are likely to be Gore supporters. That means Gore would go into the contest with nearly 40 percent of the delegates he needs for the nomination.

    Campaign adviser Robinson acknowledged that Bradley needs a big win early in the primary season "to get this thing started."

    Still, the Democratic Party has a long history of knocking off front-runners, including Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie in 1972, or nearly doing so, as in the case of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's run against Mondale in 1984.

    "Gore is a prohibitive favorite, but I also think that at least at one point, Bradley will have his day in the sun," Garin said. "There almost always is a bump on the road for Democratic front-runners, and quite often a pretty big bump."

    GOP leaders, who stand to gain from a bloody Democratic fight, cite potential Gore vulnerabilities. David Israelite, political director of the Republican National Committee, noted poll findings showing 42 percent of Democrats are concerned about "Gore's ability to win the general election," a key point of attack for Bradley.

    In addition, Israelite said, 52 percent of all voters said Gore "defended Clinton's personal conduct for too long," including 50 percent of independents, 27 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans.

    One major unknown in the 2000 nomination fight is the effect of the compressed primary and caucus calendar. As it stands now, nearly half of all states will have chosen delegates by March 14, including the four largest: California, New York, Texas and Florida.

    Some believe the financial demands will deplete a challenger like Bradley and give the advantage to the better-financed front-runner. But some say the surge of primaries presents a major danger to Gore: If he stumbles as Mondale did when he lost New Hampshire to Hart, Gore will have no time to regain his footing. Under current rules, "Hart would have been the nominee," said Devine. Yet perhaps the bigger concern for the Gore team is not whether he will win the nomination, but at what price.

    "Primaries sharpen message and give you battle legs," said Dane Strother, a Democratic consultant neutral in the race. "But the question is how many resources does Bradley force Gore to use to get the nomination?"

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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