For nearly a year, Bill Bradley has drawn remarkably upbeat media coverage as the former basketball star has steadily dribbled toward the goal of the Democratic presidential nomination.

Suddenly, however, journalists are blowing the whistle on Dollar Bill.

Bradley "can be curt and uncommunicative" as well as "sarcastic and condescending," says the New York Times. He is "aloof" and "struggling to connect with voters," says The Washington Post. He is "vaguely disdainful," says the New Yorker, and Newsweek says he "can sometimes seem holier than thou."

As Bradley has thrown some elbows at Vice President Gore in the past week, the media have portrayed him as resorting to the down-and-dirty tactics he once decried. "Bradley is now taking some detours off his political high road," ABC's Jackie Judd reported Sunday, while Cokie Roberts said Bradley "hasn't been nasty, and now he's nasty. So he's just like everybody else."

Why the sudden shift? Joe Klein, the New Yorker political writer, says the former senator "has the opposite-of-John-McCain effect on a lot of journalists, because he is so removed from us. This has been brewing for a long time." He mimicked Bradley's Olympian style as: "Let me explain to you how the economy works, Al."

With the Iowa and New Hampshire contests fast approaching, the media portraits of the candidates are growing sharper, particularly on television, which is aggressively covering the 2000 campaign for the first time. And that has meant the first sustained scrutiny of Bradley and John McCain, the insurgents who have long been buoyed by favorable headlines.

The string of critical reports on Bradley has coincided with new polls that show him slipping behind Gore, especially in Iowa. A top Bradley adviser says journalists are abruptly discovering his flaws because they are excessively poll-driven.

But Bradley faces a larger dilemma. Since he has vowed to run a campaign that is "more than sound bites and photo ops," many journalists see signs of hypocrisy when Bradley beats up on the vice president. After he told the Boston Herald last week that Gore should not have used the Willie Horton issue in the 1988 presidential campaign, most press accounts focused on Bradley's decision to go negative. "His new tactic is raising nagging contradictions that seem to muddy his above-the-fray image," said the Los Angeles Times.

The Gore camp, of course, has been regularly trashing Bradley for months, but aides were quick to profess shock that their rival was on the offensive. "He's using the oldest political trick in the book, which is negative attacks," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane told Fox News.

On some level, Bradley's bad reviews may be the product of resentment that he doesn't court the press. "He makes no attempt to hide his dislike of us," says Weekly Standard writer Tucker Carlson, who calls the candidate "weird." "Bradley gives you the feeling he has total contempt for you and the process, that he's irritated he can't be appointed president."

Others point to the political calendar. "With Bradley in a good position to win the New Hampshire primary, he's getting The Treatment," says Dan Kennedy, media writer for the Boston Phoenix.

Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs says reporters are "locked into a 'build 'em up, break 'em down' syndrome. Bradley hasn't changed; journalists' evaluation of the same traits has changed. Adherence to principle and a willingness to take unpopular stands becomes aloofness and a tin ear for politics."

Bradley got better press when he was making bold proposals on gun control and health care, Klein says. But for the last month, "he hasn't had anything else to occupy the press with--except his personality."

As the campaign heats up, flaps, charges and countercharges seem to draw much of the attention. These mini-controversies may vary in gravity, but they are all-important on the networks, where most people get their news, because they eat up precious air time. The charge is explained, the candidate under fire reacts, opponents pile on, and the minute 45 seconds is up.

McCain, like Bradley, presents a juicy target because he casts himself as a reformer. When the Boston Globe reported two weeks ago that the Arizona senator had written to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of a financial supporter, the lead sentence said the move came days before McCain appeared with Bradley "to decry the noxious influence of special interest campaign donors."

The issue plagued McCain for days. "John McCain spent yet another day explaining why he pressured federal regulators," ABC's Linda Douglass said in one report.

CBS's Phil Jones, describing a number of letters McCain has written federal regulators, said that "the strong wording in the letters may raise another question that has dogged him. . . . Was that an example of John McCain's temperament or temper?"

But the controversy seemed to fade after Bob Schieffer interviewed McCain on CBS's "Face the Nation," telling him: "I've been in Washington a long time--they look a lot like letters that most committee chairmen write to the government."

Gore, for his part, recently stumbled through 10 days of rough coverage. The vice president's declaration that military leaders would have to agree with him on policies toward gay soldiers--and his subsequent backpedaling--provided plenty of fodder. CBS's John Roberts said in one report that "the Gore campaign can ill afford these missteps."

NBC's Claire Shipman said that Gore was "hoping for a timely escape from a self-inflicted wound. . . . By being clumsy, Gore risks frustrating gays and alienating the military." She ran part of a Republican ad saying: "Call Al Gore. Tell him the only litmus test ought to be patriotism."

On another day, Shipman reported that "Gore was also forced to explain remarks by campaign manager Donna Brazile." Brazile had accused Republicans of using such prominent black figures as Colin Powell to camouflage their lack of an agenda for African Americans. Both Gore and Brazile made "apologetic phone calls" to Powell, Shipman said.

"Brazile has been in trouble before," noted ABC's John Cochran, recalling how she was bounced from Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign for suggesting that reporters pursue rumors that then-vice president George Bush was having an affair.

George W. Bush has hit his share of media potholes. For weeks, story after story questioned whether he had the intellectual capacity to be president, followed by a wave of skeptical pieces about his remark that the philosopher who most influenced him was Jesus Christ. But lately the coverage has been more to Bush's liking, focusing on his debate with McCain over the size of their tax-cut plans.

When the Texas governor said at a New Hampshire debate that he would cut taxes "so help me God," ABC's Dean Reynolds was quick to note that these were "words reminiscent of another Bush and another pledge." Next came the familiar videotape: "Read my lips--no new taxes!"

For the moment, at least, Bush is coasting. In a report Monday, ABC's Jim Wooten said that "Governor Bush continues to run as he has from the beginning, as though he already is the nominee."

CAPTION: The candidate may find it hard to keep an above-the-fray image as primaries near.

CAPTION: Former senator Bill Bradley is now reaping what he's sown by not being friendly to journalists, say some of them.