Bradley on a Fast Break
By Dan Balz
No better example exists this year than the rise of Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator and professional basketball player. Five months ago, when there were a number of heavyweight Democrats thinking of running, he was just another candidate hoping to emerge as the alternative to Vice President Gore. Today he is not just Gore's lone rival, but a candidate consistently described as a threat to deny Gore the nomination.
That the Bradley boomlet happened is not a real surprise; that it happened so quickly is. Political professionals anticipated that it would take many months for Bradley to establish his credibility as a challenger to Gore. But in the 2000 campaign, everything is happening fast.
The boomlet is both real and ephemeral, based as much on who Bradley isn't (Gore) as on who he is or what he stands for. He is the vessel for whatever resentment exists among Democrats toward President Clinton or the vice president. He and Gore are on opposite ends of the teeter-totter: As the vice president goes down, Bradley rises.
The condition feeds on itself. Democrats worried about inherent weaknesses in Gore's candidacy and his poor showing in the early polls against Texas Gov. George W. Bush have been quick to tout Bradley as a credible alternative. Party activists say good things about Bradley on initial inspection. A press corps seemingly eager for nomination fights in both parties has been a willing conspirator in moving the story along. Suddenly, the race is on.
"Gore cleared the field [except Bradley] and expected that he had wrapped up the nomination," a Democratic strategist said. "Now people are saying there will be a race. Eventually the press will look at Bradley and ask what's he for and not for. But not yet."
When he played with the New York Knicks, Bradley earned a reputation as a man who knew where to be and how to move on the court when he didn't have the ball. He has displayed the same talent in his first run for the White House, cultivating his candidacy largely by staying out of the spotlight but rising to the moment when it has come.
His strength as a challenger is now a given. But there are no straight lines in campaigns. Candidates' standings ebb and flow. As quickly as Gore has come in for criticism, questions about Bradley will intensify. Both candidates have difficult tests ahead as they move toward serious engagement later in the year.
Bradley has yet to define himself. Can he be the champion of his party's liberal tradition and a reform-minded outsider at the same time? In other words, can he be both Paul Wellstone and the late Paul Tsongas?
Wellstone is the liberal senator from Minnesota who almost ran this time to represent what he called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" and now has endorsed Bradley. Tsongas sought the Democratic nomination in 1992 by challenging liberal orthodoxy, won the New Hampshire primary but eventually succumbed to Clinton.
Gore's challenges are clear: He must reassure Democratic voters that he has what it takes to win the general election. In other words, can he develop an attractive campaign style and an appealing Democratic message that are strong enough to overcome perceptions of weakness that plague his candidacy? Can he shed the president's personal baggage while clinging to the successes of Clinton's policy legacy?
Bradley appears in no hurry to accelerate his engagement with Gore. "It builds over time," he said in an interview. "It's not something where you expect things to explode at this stage. It's a very long campaign. There's never been a one-on-one for 11 months in history. Therefore it's got to have a totally new rhythm. I think that steady-as-you-go is what this is all about. And building things broadly."
Right now, Bradley is paving his road to the nomination with doubts about the vice president – and they are plentiful.
On a lovely April afternoon, Bradley's campaign van wheeled into the parking lot at South Western Community College in Creston, Iowa, an hour and a half out of Des Moines. It was the eighth stop on his third day of his fifth visit to Iowa in 1999.
Inside the college, about 75 people were waiting for him. For a Sunday in April, 10 months before the state's precinct caucuses and 19 months before the general election, the numbers were impressive. Bradley delivered a low-key speech introducing himself to the audience of party activists, many of whom were getting their first real look at a man who spent 18 years in the Senate and a decade with the Knicks. When it was over, their reviews said everything about why Democrats may have a race on their hands.
"I don't think the vice president can win," said Russell Hobbs, a former school administrator. Asked why, he replied, "Because of his connections to Mr. Clinton – and I'm a Mr. Clinton fan. I just don't think Gore has the personality."
Bill Bjorn, a former federal worker, said he too welcomed Bradley's candidacy. "I'm glad he's in the race because I do not get a very good impression of Gore – and I'm a strong Democrat," he said. "I don't get a feeling of consistency of purpose. I think he bends to the wind."
About 250 people, many of them students, turned out to see Bradley in Grinnell, Iowa, last month. "It absolutely shocked me," said Rachel Bly, the Democratic county chairwoman. "It tells me there are more people out there supporting Bradley than anyone thought, or at least are interested to hear what he has to say."
Gore's advisers respond to this with a mixture of defenses. They acknowledge that some of their problems are self-inflicted, such as Gore's statement that he more or less invented the Internet. But those, they believe, are correctable. Underneath, they do not see a fundamental change in the dynamics of the race.
At heart, they regard Gore's current plight as something that goes along with being vice president. Look at 1987 and 1988, they say, when Vice President George Bush was trailing in the polls and getting the same kind of bad press that Gore is getting now. "It's eerie," one Gore adviser said. "I think it's all related to 'vice-presidentitis' and it all goes away when he starts to be a candidate."
The vice president's allies argue that Gore is being held to an impossible standard, that the race now is Gore vs. Gore, which is one he cannot win. "There is a process that unfolds, and the next evolution will be a head-to-head framing of Gore versus Bradley," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, a member of Gore's inner circle. "Then you're going to have to put down strengths and weakness. . . . It will be Gore versus Bradley, and then it's not even close."
But Gore's supporters acknowledge that now many Democrats are worried about the vice president's capabilities. "The nervousness is because of the pairings with Bush" in recent polls, said Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.). "Every campaign is going to have difficult periods. I'd rather have them up front and make the course corrections and address the problems."
Other Democrats, including Gore supporters, say the vice president remains an uneven campaigner and one whose private warmth and humor rarely show in public. "If you compare him to Bush, Bush is very likable and he communicates that on television," said one strategist. "The private Gore doesn't translate to anything effective in public."
Gore's stylistic problems appear especially acute on television, said Tubby Harrison, a Boston-based Democratic pollster. Voters expect a "conversation between the candidate and the voters," he said. "I don't think Gore is having that conversation. It's more like a lecture in class to a group of students."
But is Bradley different? So far that is not the question party activists or the press are asking. Many Democrats who know them both, however, say the vice president and the former senator share many traits, good and bad. Neither is particularly charismatic; both are serious students of domestic and foreign policy.
In the end, Gore's advisers believe those similarities will tilt the race decisively to Gore. As one put it, Bradley is "Al Gore with a jump shot, so why move to Bradley?"
Pollster Celinda Lake said the nomination process still favors a sitting vice president, especially one well-liked by party activists. But she and other Democrats said Bradley and his campaign team have skillfully managed the early months of the campaign. "He set expectations low and he beat them," she said.
Bradley raised $4.3 million in the first quarter, about half of what Gore raised but more than enough to impress party insiders. Bradley said he has no doubt he will raise $25 million by next year – enough to go head-to-head into the crush of early primaries.
Bradley has made himself the receptacle for those who like the direction of Clinton's policies but are sick of the administration. And without offering any specific policies, Bradley has framed the Democratic contest as a choice between big ideas (his) and small ideas (Gore's).
"There's no reason to do this unless you do things bigger than they've been done," Bradley said in an interview.
Gore's advisers say that promise of big ideas could come back to haunt Bradley if he can't deliver with big answers, and they are quietly asking, "Where's the beef?"
Bradley has begun to organize Iowa and plant roots in New Hampshire, and though he has much work to do in both states, his early efforts have been impressive enough to draw praise from Democratic officials.
Some Democrats believe Bradley may be able to pull off the balancing act of running from the left and from the outside. But given the disparate electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire, doing both at once could prove risky.
Early polls indicate that Bradley draws especially well among wealthier, better educated Democrats – the Tsongas constituency. That should bode well for him in New Hampshire, where independent voters play a bigger role and the electorate has rewarded reform-minded critics of today's politics.
"In principle, his vote ought to be the Paul Tsongas vote," said a Democrat who knows Bradley well. "His image of himself is the truth-teller."
But in New Hampshire, Gore can reach out to the Clinton network for support, something that doesn't exist in Iowa. Iowa demands organizing, which is why both campaigns see Iowa as a potentially perilous environment for the vice president.
The Iowa caucuses are dominated by labor unions and liberal party activists. As Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin (D) said, "A good populist appeal is important in Iowa."
Gore has strong ties to the teachers and public employees unions. But his relationship with the biggest union, the United Auto Workers, is strained because of the administration's free-trade posture.
Ideally, Bradley would target UAW workers, but he too is a free-trader. Bradley recently met with UAW leaders and indicated that he may be rethinking his position on trade. "There was a hint of that, but nothing I'd want to take to the bank," said Dave Neal, UAW leader in Iowa.
If Bradley is ready to move on trade, he gave no indication of it during a recent interview. Saying he is a "forthright supporter" of free and open trade, he said, "I have a clear record on that. That's also what I believe."
Over the next many months, trade is just one of a number of issues that will determine whether the Bradley boomlet of the spring grows to become the threat that many Democrats believe it can be. He has successfully navigated himself into a position that is unnerving to Gore's allies and appears to have the confidence about how to carry the campaign from here.
Rob Tully, Iowa's Democratic chairman, has been impressed with Bradley's progress. "Bradley's going to make a race out of it here," he said last week. But he then offered these words of caution: "Bill Bradley is something of a media star. His persona as an NBA player still resonates with a lot of people. People are curious about him. That's why his crowds are so big. The question now is whether his ideas and his delivery will keep them there."
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.
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