When he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, Al Gore tried to shake the lead enjoyed by Michael Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts, by criticizing the state's prison furlough program. That's the program, you might recall, that let a convicted murderer named William Horton out of jail.

Gore did not make much subsequent use of the furlough issue, and Dukakis went on to beat him. But Willie Horton became a centerpiece of Vice President George Bush's general election campaign against Dukakis.

After the thoughtful and mostly genial debate between Gore and former senator Bill Bradley here Wednesday night, Horton's might seem a jarring name to bring up. But it's just possible that history repeated itself at Dartmouth College.

Gore's attack this time came not on the evocative issue of crime but on a more workaday question: whether the numbers in Bradley's ambitious health care proposal added up. Gore charged that Bradley's plan would "cost more than the entire surplus over the next 10 years." Its "way excessive" price tag, Gore said, could "shred the social safety net" and threaten Medicare.

Lest anyone doubted this was the message Gore wanted to come out of the evening, he kept coming back to it during the town meeting, even if it meant some awkward and clumsy interruptions of answers to questions far removed from the subject of health care.

For good measure, Gore's campaign sent aides swooping into the media area bearing press releases (under the headline "Reality Check") citing sources for Gore's charges within minutes of his making them.

And the army of Gore spinners who buttonholed reporters after the town meeting stuck to theme. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, a Gore supporter, called health care "the big issue that separates the two candidates." Gore, she said in an interview, was proposing what was "practical and doable," while Bradley offered a "dream scheme."

It's perfectly possible that most Democratic primary voters will dismiss Gore's attack. Many may not warm to one Democrat criticizing another, and most like the idea of spending a lot of money to guarantee universal health coverage.

The former New Jersey senator has certainly worked hard to get where he is. But he doesn't so much run for president as sit back and wait for votes to come his way--and it's working so far. Bradley barely moved an intellectual muscle in replying to Gore. "We each have our own experts," he said. "I dispute the cost figure that Al has used."

But one can imagine the same attacks reappearing like magic a year from now if Bradley wins the Democratic nomination. Could any Republican resist quoting one Democrat charging another with fiscal irresponsibility and for offering a "scheme" next year that would shred the safety net and hurt Medicare?

What Democrats may be about to see is the psychopathology of small differences. The truth is that on issue after issue, Gore and Bradley agreed far more than they differed. Both supported a more energetic, and potentially more costly government, especially in popular areas such as education and, yes, health care. Both turned a deep shade of green when environmental issues arose. Both of these adept fund-raisers railed against the influence of money on politics.

Especially striking was their shared support for domestic partnership laws that would allow gay and lesbian couples many of the benefits of marriage--and their shared opposition to gay marriage as such. On a divisive issue, both tread carefully. But Gore could not resist pointing out that he, unlike Bradley, opposes including gay rights as part of existing civil rights law, a microdistinction Gore thinks might help with African American groups that want to keep civil rights laws as they are.

It's said this campaign will be decided on style and the Clinton connection (from which Gore pointedly ran away when he spoke of his "anger" at his boss). If that's so, the debate probably changed few minds. If you like Bradley's Adlai Stevenson-like cool detachment, you loved his performance here. Gore called too much attention to how hard he was trying to relate to voters--it was as if he were wearing a button reading, "I'm warm." But as his supporters pointed out, he did it rather well, and, yes, rather warmly.

But my hunch is that issues will be more decisive in this primary battle than people now expect, and that could make it disagreeable. Republican political consultants were prowling the press area during the debate. They were smiling.