Bill Bradley has a new trick on the campaign trail. He is holding court at a community health center, having just wrapped up an earnest hour's discussion on the problems of the uninsured. Now it is the media's turn to ask questions, and immediately the topic shifts from medical bureaucracy to the baser topic of the presidential horse race.
How, one journalist asks, would the candidate respond to Al Gore's accusation that he is not a loyal Democrat? Bradley jabs himself as though something sharp has struck him. "I don't think," he says firmly, that "the American people want the politics of the dartboard."
The jabbing gesture says a lot about Bradley's surprising progress in the Democratic primaries. It manages, like the candidate, to be both goofy and appealing -- clumsy, but wonderfully different from the lecturing, wagging forefinger of the vice president. It manages to dismiss Gore's accusation humorously rather than harshly, as though the vice president were a brash son in need of gentle calming. And it suggests that, although Bradley promises a campaign of big ideas and has sounded bold on health care, the difference between him and the vice president comes down to personal style as much as policy: to things as small but telling as body language.
It is easy, for example, to imagine Gore chairing the same health meeting in Manchester, and even to think of him making the same arguments to the doctors there. But it is not at all easy to imagine Gore looking mildly bored as one of the health center's workers takes a long-winded turn at the microphone, or to imagine him burying chin and mouth in a big hand, slumping slightly forward and studying the tabletop while the prospective voter drones on. Never in a million years would Gore, confronted with a badly worded question, demand sharply, "Whaddya mean by that?"
Bradley does all these things, and people like him for it; the latest New Hampshire poll shows him clearly ahead of Gore. This is partly the effect of Clinton fatigue, which makes goofy candidates seem better than slick ones. It is partly the effect of disgust with the attack ads and assorted dart-throwing of modern campaigns.
But the Bradley bounce reflects more than this. Bradley can seem bored, blunt and therefore appealingly genuine because he has one huge advantage over his Democratic rival. Becoming president is not his life's sole goal. Al Gore is the son of a senator who aspired, passionately, to higher office. Bill Bradley is the son of a disabled bank manager from Crystal City, Mo. Gore seems driven to realize the ambition that eluded his father. Bradley outgrew his parents' world and aspirations very early on.
By the time he left high school he had already gained fame as one of the best basketball players in Missouri history, and a string of athletic and academic triumphs followed in quick succession. In his books and speeches, Bradley returns time and again to the hours of training that made possible this early fulfillment of ambition: to the obsessive shooting practice, to the weights tied to his sneakers, to the eye blinkers that forced him to dribble without looking at the ball.
When those hours of practice yielded fame and fortune, Bradley had proved himself amply. He not only got his fill of success early; he has spent much of his adulthood fending off expectations that political glory would follow naturally. As early as 1964, when Bradley was a basketball sensation at Princeton, a New York columnist speculated that he would make a fine president; when he played for the Knicks, teammates called him "Mr. President." After 1979, when Bradley moved to the Senate, the expectations continued, even though he was by most accounts a disappointing senator.
In 1988 pundits of both left and right beseeched Bradley to run. Now he is running, but the years of laughing off past invitations to do so have left him with a sense of irony. He wants to win, but not desperately -- or at least that's how he comes across in New Hampshire's school gymnasiums and Rotary Club halls. His smiles are not unctuous; he makes no special effort to remember strangers' names; he can shake hands warmly without feeling compelled to throw his arms around voters.
For the people of New Hampshire, wooed constantly by nakedly ambitious phonies, all this is refreshing. It is sometimes said that Bradley is Gore without the charisma. But Bradley is actually like C-SPAN: His studied lack of attitude is an effective attitude.
None of this quite makes Bradley the favorite for the Democratic nomination. His style goes down well with educated voters, especially white men who remember his basketball stardom. On the other hand, Bradley is less popular among women, union members and minorities -- all key constituencies in the Democratic primaries. If the AFL-CIO endorses Gore at its upcoming convention, the Bradley bounce may go flat very suddenly. But whatever happens, it will be worth remembering one lesson: A candidate who refuses to be craven can make at least some headway in American politics.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.