They are the odd couple of Democratic Party politics, these presidential contenders. Al and the un-Al, the Beltway-bonded Tennessee Boy Scout who wants it so bad and the introspective former hoop star who prides himself on never telling you precisely what he wants.

Separated by a bare degree of policy, and a dozen degrees of personality type. Two men locked in a dance without seeming much to like each other. Enduring days of bad food, motel beds, dry heat, wailing babies and always too little sleep.

So we take the quadrennial slog in New Hampshire and Iowa with the vice president and the senator.

It's another evening at the political racetrack, an Elks Hall filled with a couple hundred polar-fleeced, Lands End-ed New Hampshire sharpies, sizing up the latest Washington suit come to beg for their votes.

But the tall one up front is going spiritual on them.

He's talking of passing 30 years on the road in America. Of listening to our stories and excavating our souls, of riding the beltway of life and coming back to talk about it. He would give us a narrative to unlock our "goodness."

Bill Bradley is running rather hard for the Democratic nomination but the sense conveyed is of a Zen Charles Kuralt. A diffident bard of our yearnings come to seek votes. A former all-American with stooped shoulders and big ears and wingtip eyebrows who isn't playing half bad in New Hampshire, where he enjoys a narrow lead in the polls.

"Someone who runs for president has as his or her challenge to give the American people a narrative." He pauses a beat. "Basically I think we're good people and if we have a narrative it will make us feel less empty and less isolated and less fearful."

Bradley has a sonorous voice and long, languid hands and he can draw out his verbs like a man pulling a l-o-n-g string out of his mouth. It's a curiously intimate style, and it works this evening. Over the course of an hour he pulls a downy quilt of words over his audience.

He's read the biorhythms of American politics and is convinced the Clinton era of letting 1,000 micro-proposals bloom is over. He sees Americans fat and happy and ready to think of life beyond their Dow dreams. So he employs New Age rhetoric to construct a Great Society of universal health care and lifting up the poor.

"In a world of new possibilities guided by goodness, anything is possible."

That's the gamble. In his world, only the cynical ask how.

The Veep Is on the Set

It's 1 p.m. in a Portsmouth apartment building for the elderly, and two dozen seniors are secured on couches behind white ropes as though in a museum exhibit. Some doze, a few wet their lips. It's been an hour. Time for lunch.

Then the Secret Service men with the eyes wide open fan out. Young aides-de-camp hand out statements. In walks Sen. Ted Kennedy and Vice President Albert Gore.

Gore is buff in gray pinstripes. No earth tones, no growls and no really enthusiastic arm movements. His personality spin can be exhausting, but today the gyroscope seems level. He's not plunging in the polls anymore and he's just come from Dorchester, where he received Kennedy's endorsement.

So he slips into his natural political role: the good son. As eager to please as Bradley isn't.

"I see so many dear friends here." (Who? Don't ask, this is politico-speak for hello.) "Let's get down to important business."

Gore is there to make two points: That Bradley, whom Gore "respects deeply," is a pointy-headed theoretician whose plans for universal health care will destroy Medicare and toss the elderly into the streets . . . and that Gore has proposed a prescription drug plan for Medicare. Now he needs some horror stories.

But New Englanders are a reticent lot, even more so on empty stomachs.

"Don't you think we should get some more HELP for seniors?!" he asks.

The seniors nod, a few murmur yes.

He goes on. "Has anyone had to put their prescriptions on the table" (his hands splay in front of him, as though he's laying out mah-jongg tiles) "and had to unilaterally go against their doctor's advice and decide which ones they won't fill?"

It'd be really cool if someone stood up now. No one does. Finally, a white-haired lady offers that she lives on $652 a month and pays $200 a month in prescriptions.

There's 20 more minutes of this. Then Gore stands up, assays a stiff little bow, and says: "Well, I really appreciated this discussion."

Then Kennedy, who has an aldermanic feel for a crowd's mood and has remarked on how hungry the seniors look, ropes Gore into singing a quick and off-key round of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

The seniors beam and fire up the walkers, inching toward the exits.

Zen Again

How to explain his world of different possibilities? Bradley tells a story to the crowd at the Elks Club:

"Albert Einstein taught at Princeton years ago. A student ran up to him and said, 'Professor Einstein, Professor Einstein, the questions on this year's exam are the same as last year's.' Einstein looked at the student and said: 'That's okay, this year the answers are different.' "

Bradley flickers that ironic-sardonic half smile. The crowd laughs and wonders what it's laughing at.

Never Mind

"Hey guys!"

When the vice president goes hyper-animated, you know it's trouble. In private, the identity mix-master disappears. He is what he is: a Washington pol who believes in government and can crack a joke at his own expense. But in times of trouble? He's "no controlling legal authority," the wonk who trips over his own tongue.

Today, the press wants to know if he really will require that his top generals agree to support lifting the bans on gays in the military. Will it be a litmus test?

His campaign has spent the day backtracking. In Dubuque, aides whisper that maybe he didn't really mean litmus test. In Cedar Rapids they say he definitely didn't mean it. And in Des Moines, the VP himself strides from behind a curtain and assures . . .

"That is not what I meant to convey--that's what you heard."

Yak-Yak

"So who's your favorite philosopher?"

Bradley's eyebrows hike upwards.

"My favorite philosopher?"

"Yeah, who's the one that guides you most in your living? If you're in airplane turbulence at 39,000 feet, who do you pray to? Just about a personal question, but who do you pray to? To--to--what's his name? John Locke, like Steve Forbes mentioned the other day, or one of these characters?"

Bradley's eyebrows are almost tickling his hairline.

"I don't have a favorite philosopher."

We're in the Romanesque chapel at St. Anselm's College in New Hampshire and Bradley is being interrogated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews, of the saucer-round face and the chattering, clattering mouth that never stops. To listen to Matthews is to recall author Joe Flaherty's description of the professional Irishman: "A terrible blather is born."

A modern campaign is a long bath of daily humiliations, from begging for dollars to yucking it up with Matthews-Imus-&-MTV. So Bradley has tried to wrest control of the pop culture dial, resisting the what-color-is-your-underwear questions.

But here's the problem. If the stiffly wonkish Gore is gamely willing to dive into the deep end of politics, Bradley risks looking like a man who'd rather spend an hour dipping his toe in and out, for fear he might lose his soul.

Bradley makes a clean breast of his ambivalence in his book, "Time Present, Time Past."

"Those who failed in their presidential runs may have lost a chance to lead their country," he writes. "But what they have regained is the possibility to define themselves apart from others, to continue to grow intellectually and spiritually."

Read further and find a critique of another campaign staple Bradley can't stand: debates. They "don't test comprehensive knowledge, wisdom, courage, moral strength or honesty. . . . Debates reward glibness, aggressiveness and attractive physical appearance."

Maybe that explains the mood swings. The fire-eyed Bradley of the debate in Durham, N.H., who startles Beltway "Al" by telling him to clamber out of his "Washington bunker." Or, three days later, the airily disengaged Bradley of the Des Moines debate, a man whose nose is so high in the air as not to notice the traps Gore is laying at his feet.

Gore stops the Des Moines debate to introduce "a friend of mine." Farmer Chris Peterson rises, a bit self-conscious. Gore demands that Bradley explain why he voted against the disaster relief bill that saved Peterson's farm after the floods of 1993.

A cheap stunt? Of course! Gore's campaign team is a master of the human prop. Bradley has been prepped but he's no fan of how "candidates plan their responses and regurgitate them on cue." So he's not dignifying this.

"You know, Al, I think that the premise of your question is wrong," Bradley replies. "This is not about the past. This is about the future . . ."

The trap slaps shut. Right there a couple thousand Iowans feel themselves standing next to Peterson, stuck in Bradley's been there, done that, next question stance. The inescapable sense is of a candidate who has just tripped over the line between the politics of authenticity and the politics of condescension.

Svengali Breakfast

Peterson the Human Prop was no surprise. The stunt-masters sat in the atrium of a Des Moines hotel that morning, millionaire Democratic consultant Bob Shrum with his plump little belly and tie pulled askew, and Carter Eskew with his modish haircut and the scarf artfully thrown around his neck and the bank account plump from his work as the media handmaiden of the tobacco industry. Gore's media team, munching and planning.

They're paid to win. And Albert is a studious practitioner.

Times of Plenty

"I FEEEEEEL GOOD!"

James Brown's shrieking on the loudspeaker and who can argue? The white metal 4H hangar shakes, 700 steel and tire and meat-processing workers from the great city of Dubuque, a sea of black, yellow and orange union jackets, pounding hands and letting Al and Teddy know they feel good, too.

Snow powders the low hills and the Fahrenheit isn't friendly. But bulldozers slog sod through the winter, and construction workers slap up the boxlike houses that spell h-o-m-e-o-w-n-e-r for a factory worker.

Ten years ago, half the men and women in this hangar were on the dole. Today the unemployment rate hovers at 1 percent. You want to run down Clinton-Gore, go somewhere else. These people want to talk his economy, not his id.

"You betcha I like Gore," says David Smith, his broad back tucked inside a spacious Local 94 UAW jacket. "I'm employed and I wasn't before. The Republicans killed us."

Gore knows that. His smile is not Clinton liquid, and he has a funny way with words, sometimes tripping through a sentence like a man falling downstairs. But he's wearing an open-necked shirt and black cowboy boots, and he's high wattage, eyes electric, bounding about as he grabs hands and arms and kisses and hugs just about anything.

Kennedy, with that massif of a head and the Buddha belly and all that history, warms up the crowd. He names the tiny Iowa hamlets he's visited in service of one martyred brother or another--"I was here in '60 for my brother Jack, I was here in '68 for my brother Bobby, I was here in '80 for myself, but we'll forget that . . ." You hear him invoke 77 years of Kennedy-clan service on the Senate and House Labor committees and watch him soaking through his shirt as his voice crescendos and the mind cannot help but reimagine a past and a future aborted by violence.

Kennedy breaks the spell and digs up his best World Wrestling Federation voice to introduce Gore. "Laaaaaaaaaadies and Gentlemen, the next president of the United States, Allllllllllllll Gore!!!"

Gore's will not match the hard-voweled poetry of a Boston Irishman. But he's doing his very best to sound like William Jennings Bryan reincarnated, talkin' about "raisin' the minimum wage and busting up the monopolies, we need some trust-bustin'!"

The "boys," as he calls the audience, pound their hands together.

As he's just become a grandfather, he asks a few white-haired ladies for advice. "You have 41 grandchildren!?" He pops his eyes at a bountiful blue-hair. "No wonder this county is growing so fast!"

Most of it's good fun and good politics. As this is Gore, however, it can get a bit much, as when he talks about the family spread in Tennessee.

"Tipper and I live in Washington in the vice president's residence but we call home our farm in Tennessee. And I talk to our neighbors who are farmers . . ."

Well . . . A Des Moines Register columnist listened as Gore slipped on the oratorical overalls a few weeks back. So the columnist inquired: What do you grow on your farm? In the columnist's telling, Gore smiles.

"We have a big garden." Then there's an awkward silence. "That's really about it."

As "Al" says upon leaving Dubuque: "God bless y'all, and we need y'help!"

Competitive

How to keep yourself going. How to ignore the Gore volunteer dressed as a giant ear of corn who follows you everywhere in Iowa and all the reasons you might fail.

Bradley believes he has mastered the skeptical inner voice that asks if a president can accomplish something meaningful. That he's conquered his antipathy for the shallowness of the press and his natural stage fright. That he will not tumble into the "moral traps and self-delusions" of politics.

That he can package without compromising himself.

In New Hampshire, where he's held 47 town meetings in the past year, it works. But what if New Hampshire gives him its heart and the rest of the country fails to follow? Eugene McCarthy, another cerebral man of exquisite sensibilities, a poet even, came here, did well and went nowhere.

Then again, Bradley's not quite the Zen master that he lets on. He won three U.S. Senate elections in New Jersey, not Lhasa. And he made a living as a slow white guy in the NBA. His ambition burned no less deeply for being denied.

Gore calls Bradley "a good man." He calls Gore "a good vice president."

"I feel towards him," Bradley says one New Hampshire night, "as I feel towards all competitors. Competitive."

Stumbling Toward Tomorrow

The fog rises in thick clammy clouds around Mason City, a corn town by the Minnesota border. There's dirty snow by the roadside, and empty cans of Budweiser. It's 10 p.m. on a day that started in the milky half-light of dawn, and Gore is pacing the stage in the Roosevelt High School gym like Springsteen in a Washington suit. Look this way and hold up your fist. Look that way and hold up your fist.

He comes from a political family. When years ago his father first ran for the U.S. Senate, the incumbent put up a sign saying: "The thinking feller votes McKellar," Gore's mother sent the kids traipsing all over Tennessee tacking on a coda: "Think some more and vote for Gore."

He doesn't like to lose.

"I want to fight for you," he tells 650 people crowded into the bleachers. "I want to fight for all of you."

Gore repeats it and repeats it, an electoral incantation at the beginning of a very long election year.

CAPTION: You can't take the country out of the boy: The just-plain-folksy Al Gore wore cowboy boots in Mason City, Iowa, and talked about his "farm" in Tennessee.

CAPTION: Dueling personalities: Democratic hopefuls Bill Bradley, left, and Al Gore at their Des Moines debate on Jan. 8. What they have in common is a strong competitive desire to win.

CAPTION: Bill Bradley, followed by "Corn Man," a Gore volunteer who heckles Bradley on his farm policy.