Bill Bradley's senior advisers seemed giddy early Saturday afternoon as they contemplated what a bad week it had been for Vice President Al Gore's star-crossed campaign. But an hour later, after the latest debate was concluded, they had little to smile about.

Gore may be a campaigner only a Democratic regular can love, but he surely bested Bradley here Saturday for the first time in four debates. He did so partly because Bradley was even more restrained than usual to avoid offending Iowa Democrats. Moreover, the only challenger of the party's established presidential candidate cannot exploit Gore's monumental blunders because they are the heart and soul of the party's base.

This dilemma suggests that wise old Democratic heads have been correct that their party is stuck with Gore. Many don't like it and fear catastrophic results. But the vice president's mishaps earlier in the week and his successes Saturday both are clues to why polls show him in free fall against George W. Bush, 17 points behind in CNN-Time's first national survey of 2000.

The events that so bemused Bradley's inner circle were Gore's promise to impose a gay-rights litmus test on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and campaign manager Donna Brazile's denigration of Gen. Colin Powell as a tool of white Republicans. They are not isolated blunders but integral to Gore's and the party's politics and so could not be exploited by Bradley in Saturday's debate.

Both candidates are competing for a massive gay and lesbian vote in a potentially vital March 7 California primary. Brazile was brought aboard Gore's campaign as an African American totem, and Bradley hesitates to criticize her. When Gore adopted Bradley's position on gay rights (that the generals need not be tested because they must obey their commander in chief) and apologized to Powell, Bradley let the matters rest there. They went unmentioned in one hour of earnest Iowa debate Saturday.

Gore and Bradley had been warned by their Iowa supporters that they had best abandon their spirited rhetoric displayed in Durham, N.H., last Wednesday lest they offend Iowa sensibilities. Gore laid aside his indictment of Bradley and his self-congratulation for staying on as vice president after Republicans won control of Congress. Bradley reverted to passivity.

But any Gore campaign is based on picking at an opponent's weaknesses (though less aggressively in Iowa). Thus, Gore's research staff found a Bradley Senate vote against flood relief, and the vice president asked him twice during the debate why he did it. There was no answer, but the look on his face sent a message: Who in the world can remember every vote in the Senate? Iowa's Democratic Gov. John Vilsack, trying hard to be neutral, had to admit that the exchange did not help Bradley in this farm state.

While Gore was less personally abusive, his scripted style otherwise changed little. He tirelessly repeated how he returned disillusioned from an Army journalist's duties in Vietnam. He claimed Bradley is trying to kill Medicaid. He nagged for weekly debates to replace 30-second commercials. Gore also added something new: selected voters positioned in the audience to illustrate a point.

The outlook here is not good for Bradley. The Des Moines Register poll published Saturday showed that Gore's Iowa decline has ended, with Bradley still far behind. Gore's institutional support -- especially from labor and teachers -- is magnified in a caucus state. Political pros here shake their heads at the notion of Bradley's television blitz getting Iowans to spend two hours at a caucus on a cold January Monday night. A Gore landslide here could squelch Bradley in New Hampshire.

What Democrats were talking about is trouble for Gore as a nominee: the use Republicans will make of gays in the military in the general election campaign and what Donna Brazile's outrage will be the next time she plays the race card. Should Bradley have raised these matters at the Iowa Public Television building Saturday? That would be dangerous in today's Democratic Party.

(C)2000, Creators Syndicate Inc.