Fortunately, none of it's personal.
Not when Albert Gore points out that "Bill" voted for the Reagan budget cuts and voted against the Persian Gulf intervention. Nor when Bill Bradley points out that "Al" does not have the courage to support a ban on handguns and that "Al" is stuck in a "Washington bunker."
The Democratic boys went at it tonight at the University of New Hampshire, two suits throwing combos above and below the belt, and always emphasizing the respect they felt for each other, even as each probed tenderly for the other's windpipe.
The tone is nicely established about halfway through, when Bradley takes note of Gore's latest Call Me Underdog morph. Gore has just offered to disarm all of his 30- and 60-second radio and television spots in New Hampshire in exchange for a half-dozen debates with Bradley, whom he now terms the front-runner.
Bradley's eyebrows do the sardonic twitch. "Well, you know, Al, your underdog position brings tears to my eyes."
Gore goes into the chest puff and rejoins, "I hope my upset victory on February 1st brings tears to your eyes."
Nonetheless, this debate scored rather high on fiber and low on the stunt meter. There was no sign of Gore as Tennessee homeboy, no dropped letters at the ends of his words. His campaign's financial ship is listing now, and his polls are nowhere near so plump as in months past. And so, it was time for him to unsheath the rapier.
From attacking Bradley's proposal for universal health care to criticizing his decision to leave the U.S. Senate in 1996, even as the Gingrich revolution threatened to swamp the Democrats, Gore was all offense.
"Sometimes Bill gets a little out of sorts when I talk about the substance of policy," Gore says. "I certainly do not want to talk about him as a person, especially not in a critical way."
Bradley, for his part, often enjoys affecting an Archbishop of Canterbury stance toward the thrashing about of his political opponents.
To respond is to dignify. But his aides have spoken recently of the collective realization that Gore's attacks threaten Bradley not so much in New Hampshire, where the former senator is now well known, as in the remainder of the nation.
So tonight, Bradley lets his bishop's cape fall to the floor and soon enough two rather astute politicians are rolling in the rhetorical aisles.
Gore speaks of Bradley as a sort of disaffected academic, wandering back into the political arena after an unapproved sabbatical--"running for president is not some academic exercise." And Bradley rejoins in the manner of a man who would explain the ways of the world to a cousin who has spent far too long on the public dole in Washington.
"First of all, let me explain to you, Al, how the private sector works--"
"Try not to be aloof," Gore interjects.
Faced with Gore's offer to suspend political ads, Bradley emits a humorless chuckle. "It's an interesting ploy . . . but, you know, the reality is if you want to speak to people in their living rooms, you have to get to them . . . and if you know what you believe, you can communicate in 30 seconds."
By evening's end, the distinct impression is that the two men may be a bare degree of separation apart on matters of policy but that a personal chasm yawns. Bradley seems genuinely stung by Gore's attacks on his health plan and accuses the vice president of trying to stir antagonisms among black and Latino voters.
"It was particularly offensive to me when he said . . . I was going to hurt African Americans, Latinos, with the health plan I have offered. And to say to me, who's had the deep commitment to the issue of racial unity . . . that I would go out and hurt African Americans and Latinos consciously really offended me."
Yeah, well. Gore's not backing off an inch.
"Well, you know, Harry Truman said in 1948, 'I'm just telling the truth and he thinks it's hell.' "
It's as if in the end we're watching two college roomies who are perhaps in need of a bit of . . . space. Even the political niceties are not particularly reassuring. Thus we find Gore telling the audience that his evisceration of his fellow Democrat Bradley implies no particular ill will.
"I respect Bill, I really do," Gore says. "I'm not just saying that as a ploy. I think he's a genuinely good person."
The anchor now looks to Bradley. It is, in the way of these things, Bradley's turn to bow toward Gore. Bradley declines. "I agree with what he said. I'm a good person."
CAPTION: Their policy differences may not be major, but a great personal divide seems to separate "Archbishop" Bill Bradley, left, and "Underdog" Al Gore.
CAPTION: Hot under the collar: Candidates Bill Bradley and Al Gore traded testy remarks yesterday during the Democrats' third New Hampshire debate.