Bill Bradley has a time clock inside his head. I don't know where it came from; maybe from his basketball days at Princeton and with the Knicks. But I know it is not synchronized with the calendar most of the others running for president are watching.
Spooked by the foreshortened schedule of primaries, which dictates that the nominations will probably be settled by next March 7, the candidates are scrambling frantically to avoid early elimination from the race. Meanwhile, Bradley, the former Democratic senator from New Jersey, moves at a slow, steady lope, pausing to listen to voters as much as he talks.
Bradley has made exactly two substantive policy speeches since he began his campaign -- one on gun control and one, last week, on campaign finance. Gore has done much more. He has described in detail what he would do as president on education and crime, and has explained a strategy for enlisting faith-based organizations in solving social problems. His record on environmental issues is clear, as is his approach to economic and foreign policy.
Trailing Gore by wide margins in the national polls and in the leadoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Bradley by all rights should be trying to put pressure on the vice president by defining his policy differences with him. That's exactly what you see the trailing Republicans trying to do to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Instead, Bradley is basically ignoring Gore and going quietly about the business of raising money, nurturing grass-roots organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire -- and listening. When I sat down with him last week after his speech at the National Press Club, and pressed him about this lackadaisical-looking effort, he replied with a bored tone that "I don't think the public is focused on the race now." Thanksgiving, he added, will be plenty soon enough to give people "a clear picture of who you are and what you intend to do." See ya later.
The same inner voice that is telling Bradley to pace himself told him last winter that 2000 was the year he should run for president. Most of his friends thought he should have done it in 1988 or 1992, when there was no obvious front-runner for the Democratic nomination. He said he wasn't ready. Now, when no other Democrat dared to challenge Gore, Bradley decides to run. Go figure.
I do not know whether Bradley's inner voice is right, but it's clear that his confidence in his instincts has been a tonic to his staff -- and is attractive to some voters. His aides are enjoying this campaign. And without an ounce of smugness, they communicate a sense that "we're going to do a lot better than you think."
The contrast to the Gore operation could not be sharper. On paper he has every advantage, but you'd never know it. Every time there is a flap -- and there have been many -- Gore adds a new pollster or media consultant. His every move betrays uncertainty about where he is going.
None of this says Bradley will win the nomination. He remains a wooden speaker, challenging a man who has had six years to build a national network of support among Democratic officials and the party's major interest groups. But this "listening" thing of Bradley's is no gimmick. He has learned two things from the voters that I know to be true: Most American families, he says, still feel economic anxiety, because they are living from paycheck to paycheck and worry about losing their health insurance and pensions if they are laid off. And "even people who are doing well are searching for some meaning in their lives, so they are open to consider more options."
Almost four years ago, explaining why he had decided to leave the Senate in 1996, Bradley told me something that is eerily prescient, if you think about the race between Gore and himself: "Being part of government in a time of distrust like this," he said, "is like walking across terrain where there are camouflaged pits with sharpened poles at the bottom, where at any moment you might fall through and be impaled. So you govern tactically, by the latest focus group, the latest poll. You never pull back and try to figure out the bigger narrative, where the story is going and where it ought to go.
"To formulate that narrative," he continued, "you have to listen to enough people, develop story lines, test them out, to help people see the next chapter in the narrative of our nation's life. If you're a politician without a story that lets people see where they fit into things, you cannot lead."
Bradley is no Garrison Keillor when it comes to storytelling. But he might have figured something out.