Vice President Albert Gore came to his fateful encounter with newly menacing challenger Bill Bradley carrying heavy baggage. He was wearing an outfit that added to his problems when he stepped onstage at Dartmouth College: a brown suit, a gunmetal blue shirt, a red tie--and black boots.

Was it part of his reinvention strategy? Perhaps it was meant to be a ground-leveling statement--"I am not a well-dressed man." It is hard to imagine that he thought to ingratiate himself with the nation's earliest primary voters by trying to look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station. Maybe it was the first step in shedding his Prince Albert image.

He had other personal issues on his mind. It was plain as he plunged into pre-game activities. The authorities dragged the two rivals onto the stage a good 20 minutes before air time. Gore has been programmed to relax, which is still a reach for him. While he and Bradley were seated on high stools looking uneasy, Gore seized the moment to demonstrate what a take-charge type he is, and how eager he was to begin the "debate" he had long avoided with the former senator from New Jersey. "Ask some questions," he said in the rallying tone of the camp counselor getting the sing-along going. He demonstrated hyper-animation, quizzing his questioners, asking them about their children, walking to the front of the stage. Across the set, a slumping Bradley cast a cold eye on the proceedings and answered a few questions. At length, he took his revenge.

While the moderators were giving the spectators final instructions about deportment, Bradley slipped off his stool in a King Kong crouch and began blowing kisses in the direction of Tipper Gore in the front row.

When audience members got wise, they cracked up.

When the cameras came on, Gore went almost immediately to work divesting himself of his heaviest luggage, the Clinton albatross. Without being asked about the president, at least by name, Gore sought separation. "I understand the disappointment and anger that you feel toward President Clinton," he said--even though his interrogator, James Sheridan of Hanover, had not mentioned either emotion. "I felt it myself."

Without mentioning the president's mitigating performance in office, Gore added, "He's my friend." The American people, he said, want to move on. In its starkness, it was more than a separation. It was more like an amputation.

Bradley was no help to him. He insisted on being gracious. "I agree with the vice president," he would say or, "As Al says. . . ." He got the evening's first applause with his visions about the integrity a president should have. He gave Jimmy Carter as an example of someone he admires. It was appropriate for him to speak well of Carter: Bradley is following closely Carter's New Hampshire playbook of 1976, which was almost entirely about sterling character after the squalors of Watergate.

Gore tried to bring the Olympian back to Earth with a charge that Bradley's health care plan would cost $1.2 trillion. Bradley waited several minutes before replying laconically, ". . . We each have our own experts. I dispute the cost figure Al has used."

It was part of Bradley's strategy: His dialogue is with New Hampshire's voters, not with Gore. Gore wants to paint him as an extravagant, out-of-touch liberal. Bradley looked bemused.

About midway through the hour, Gore--his mind cleared of his personal problems and his handlers' remonstrances--settled down. He began answering questions in a firm and forceful manner. He spoke with feeling about gun control and paying our U.N. dues. He began to get as much applause as Bradley. It turned out the differences between them are of degree more than kind.

The evening ended with deep satisfaction among all Democrats. The party had put on display two politicians of high caliber, either one capable of taking on any Republican. They had a meeting that is exactly what people have been saying they want: civil, substantive and without cheap shots.

As Bradley said at a town meeting in Nashua the morning after, "It was a good night for democracy." He did not gloat, but the look on his face and the gleam in his eye said he thought it was a good night for him, too. Several seniors said politely that both men had won. All listened raptly to Bradley's rap about leadership.

Gore flew off to Iowa to hammer more on the Olympian's extravagance. It may not matter. In New Hampshire, voters are listening to the music, not the words. Gore's problem may not be his boss, his uptightness or his wardrobe. It's just that Bill Bradley, of all people, has made a connection with Granite Staters. It was a long time coming, says John Rauh, the first prominent Democrat in the state (he was the party's 1992 Senate nominee here) to endorse Bradley, "but now you can almost see it."