In Sunday's contentious Democratic debate, Al Gore augmented his litany of Bill Bradley's sins by declaring: "He opposed our participation in Bosnia." Bradley protested: "I didn't oppose our participation in Bosnia." This is a matter of fact, not opinion, and the facts are with Bradley.

In 1995, then-Sen. Bradley voted against a narrowly defeated resolution opposing President Clinton's dispatch of troops in Bosnia. Why, then, did the vice president say something that was untrue? Partly because he was disgorging the negative research on Bradley compiled by his staff. Partly because that is just the way Al Gore has always campaigned.

To use one of Gore's favorite words, it is a "risky" way to run for president in the climate of 2000. His attack mode--punctuated by grimaces and sighs while Bradley was talking--did not please many of his supporters whom I contacted.

"I wasn't comfortable with either [candidate]," said a longtime Democratic National Committee member who backs Gore. "I wish I could get my $1,000 [contribution] back," commented an aide to a former Democratic president. "I'm still for Gore, but Bradley seems comfortable, more at ease," said a onetime presidential campaign manager.

Gore looked so uncomfortable that two of America's top political reporters described his Sunday performance to me as "desperate." Actually, with Gore well ahead of Bradley everywhere outside the Northeast, it is too soon for desperation. Rather, the frenetic style, accompanied by whacking of his opponent, has characterized Gore's past campaigns. But it is sure to violate his pledge made, however inadvertently, in the last debate.

"Will you commit not to run any negative ads?" asked Bradley. "Absolutely," replied Gore. "I will never run a personal negative attack against you." Bradley caught the word "personal" and persisted in seeking a broader promise. "No, no," he said. "No attack ads?" Gore: "Absolutely."

But that apparent pledge creates a massive conflict with the kind of campaigning Gore has always done and plans to keep doing. Sources in his campaign said that there definitely will be "comparative" television commercials--the euphemism for attack ads. The problem with Gore's comparisons is that they often misrepresent the opponent's position, never more blatantly than with Bosnia. In the Dartmouth debate Oct. 27, Gore insinuated that Bradley was out of step on this issue and made clear his false allegation on "Meet the Press."

The Gore campaign handout released after Sunday's debate documents his accusation with 1994 and 1995 reports by United Press International, the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press and the Bergen County (N.J.) Record. However, these sources show Bradley not criticizing intervention in Bosnia but instead criticizing Clinton's failure to act decisively against Serbian aggression. The Record of Dec. 14, 1995, noted that "Bradley said he supports the deployment of U.S. troops to Bosnia" and voted in favor of it. To include this as documentation of the vice president's accusations requires a certain audacity.

More relevant to Gore's attack is his often-stated claim, repeated Sunday, that Bradley would end Medicaid and substitute "vouchers that are limited to $150 a month." Whatever the merits of Bradley's expensive health program, it does not offer "vouchers"--but voucher has become a buzzword for liberals. Bradley's plan for poor families, his campaign estimates, would provide an average of $417 a month.

"I have never launched a personal negative attack, and I never will," Gore claimed during the last debate. Yet, the record is abundant that he has always campaigned this way.

In his 1988 presidential campaign, Sen. Gore mercilessly attacked Rep. Richard Gephardt. "Who is the real Dick Gephardt?" asked a Gore commercial one week before Super Tuesday. "Is it the man who says it's our fight or the one whose campaign is financed by big corporations?" As for Michael Dukakis, a Gore commercial at the same time asserted that he "seems to say he wouldn't object to the Soviets establishing client states in our hemisphere."

When I recently noted to a high-ranking Democrat that Republican George W. Bush led Gore in polls all over the country, he replied evenly: "He won't be when we get through with him." The approach to Bradley is not desperation but preparation for the bigger battle ahead.

In my last column, the Republican running against Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop in Georgia was incorrectly identified. He is Dylan Glenn.

(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.