As Bill Bradley sat at a table at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines on Oct. 9 listening to Al Gore trash him, the look on his face was a cross between a Mona Lisa smile and pained exasperation. Democratic politicians across the country, observing Bradley's reaction on cable television, sensed the momentum changing against him in his chase after Gore for the presidential nomination.

The vice president's complaints about his only challenger are ludicrous on their face: that Bradley voted with the congressional majority to cut spending in 1981 and that he retired from the Senate in 1996 after serving 18 years. Incomprehensible though this criticism may seem to ordinary people, it has resonance for the Democratic activists who attend Jefferson-Jackson dinners and vote in caucuses and primary elections.

Both Gore and Bradley are acting in character. Belying his reputation as a plodder, the vice president in truth is a relentless attack politician. Bradley always has met assaults on him by turning the other cheek, which, against Gore and his campaign team, can mean a slit throat.

In his most recent campaign 10 years ago, Bradley was nearly upset for a third term in the Senate by failing to respond to persistent attacks from then-unknown Republican Christine Todd Whitman.

It is not that Gore took Bradley's team by surprise. It was braced for an assault two months ago when crack campaign consultant Bob Shrum (and his associates, Tad Devine and Mike Donilon) came aboard. Shrum's talent is legendary in rescuing seemingly doomed Democratic candidates by demolishing their opponents.

Little more than a year ago, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening appeared beaten until Shrum was hired and successfully branded Republican candidate Ellen Sauerbrey as a racist.

But Al Gore's mean streak was not engineered by Bob Shrum. A look at the tapes of his triumphant debates against Ross Perot and Jack Kemp shows how much the vice president enjoys close combat. In his failed 1988 campaign for president, Gore nailed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for the Willie Horton affair long before George Bush took up that cry.

That the remodeled Gore campaign would attack Bradley was a given, with only the content in doubt. But when the vice president fired at the Des Moines dinner, it became clear that his negative researchers had found slim pickings.

Gore declared that some Democrats--meaning Bradley--in 1981 "felt for their political survival they had to vote" for Reaganomics. Bradley did share the belief of many Democrats that with budget deficits out of control, fiscal discipline was needed.

But he was the only member of the Senate Finance Committee that year to vote against tax cuts--the other half of Reaganomics that two decades later is the more important test of Democratic orthodoxy.

"I never walked away . . .," Gore continued. "When Newt Gingrich took over the Congress and tried to reinforce Reaganomics, some [meaning Bradley] walked away. I decided to stay and fight." That generated cheers in Des Moines but shoulder shrugs from people who wondered about the realistic option of the vice president of the United States to resign his office.

Bradley's limp response in Iowa: "It takes discipline to be positive." Bradley's aides say that Americans have had more than enough of attack politics and that Republican George W. Bush's popularity derives from a kinder, gentler approach. That's what the voters tell Bradley focus groups, decrying Gore-like negativism.

Voters always say that, but negative politics nearly always works--particularly when the victim turns the other cheek.

The feisty Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, an enthusiastic Bradley supporter, surely would hit back if he were the candidate. He has long planned to leave after 12 years in the Senate, six years short of Bradley's tenure. He claims Gore is engaging in "a little rewriting of history" in claiming to have struck back at the Republicans immediately after the 1994 election. "I didn't see a lot of that for the better part of a year," Wellstone told me. Why doesn't Bradley say that?

"That's not who he is," explained his supporter. But it's Bradley who may end up shredded by his sharp-tongued rival.

(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.