"What I am trying to do takes time," said Bill Bradley the night of his impressive defeat in the Iowa caucus. "I'm trying to do politics in a different way--respect people, listen to them, give them something to vote for."

And there, in a nutshell, is Bradley's glaring defect. Al Gore may be as subtle as raw whiskey, but at least he understands the transaction that's taking place out there in Campaignland. Bradley keeps offering to give us something, his fair self; whereas Gore knows he's asking us for something. A thing of real value: our votes.

I've been critical in the past of the vice president's tendency to eat the spinach of political expedience with too much alacrity. But Bradley's recent complaints about the supposed negativity and pandering of Gore's campaign seem way overstated. Given the choice between someone who is pandering to the electorate and someone who is trying to improve it, it isn't at all obvious that the improver is the better choice.

"A thousand promises and a thousand attacks," Bradley said to Gore at the end of Wednesday night's debate. "That's what's been your campaign--a promise to every little special interest group, attack, attack, attack every day."

The completeness of his scorn for those little special interest groups is worth paying attention to. In our politics, our leaders don't get to wish those centers of power away; they have to stroke them and pay them and play them and use them. Future campaign historians may record that Bradley lost the nomination for good in the Jan. 8 Iowa debate, when he flunked Gore's stagy challenge to defend the supposed harm he had done Iowa farmers with a 1993 vote to limit flood relief. ("This is not about the past, this is about the future," he sniffed, when he might have pointed out that Gore's charge concerned a $1 billion amendment to a $4 billion relief bill he had voted for.)

Gore was executing a classic pander here, right down to summoning an Actual Farmer to stand up in the audience as Exhibit A. But the exchange raised a legitimate question: If Bradley won't stoop to Politics 101, how is he going to accomplish the great feats of leadership he promises on famously difficult issues such as gun control and health care?

Gore's recent campaign strength is, it is true, built on targeted appeals to the party's traditional constituencies. In Wednesday's debate, he took so many opportunities to plug his health plan's lavish prescription-drug benefits for seniors that one thought he might soon offer to drop by and personally administer their dosages. This machine-like series of appeals has led to a certain amount of hand-wringing in the moderate Democratic Leadership Council segment of the party: In nailing down the support of teachers' unions and African Americans and big labor, is Gore kicking away Bill Clinton's great political legacy, the broadening of the party's appeal?

But Clinton's genius was to practice just enough of the classic interest-group politics that power the party, while also carving out the space to lure voters with larger-minded appeals to the common interest. This balancing act, Clinton showed, is any successful Democrat's only choice. If Gore lately seems on the verge of kissing up too much (did he mention that he favors a generous prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients?), the test is in whether he has the necessary finesse to hold that support while shifting emphasis in the general election. Erring too far in the opposite direction, as Bradley does, seems very much like simple vanity.

The weird disciplines of our politics--the stupid-cap-wearing, hog-patting, old-folk-charming, outrage-feigning, knish-eating conventions of campaigns--are the only ones we have. It doesn't really matter that they may be no better or worse, as indicators of presidential timbre, than if we asked all the candidates to stand on their heads and whistle "Iolanthe." There is a weird nobility in all the little acts of self-abasement we demand of our pols, who by definition place a high value on our votes. This is why Gore, even at his most slashing and disingenuous, registers with me as a more trustworthy figure than Bradley does.

Bradley, you see, doesn't need your vote; he isn't running to please you. He's running in the name of "big, bold programs like guaranteeing access to health insurance for all Americans, getting a qualified teacher in every classroom, registering and licensing all handguns, getting the poison of money out of politics. And moving our collective humanity a few feet forward."

Well, thanks. But call me back when you've figured out how to get universal health insurance past Trent Lott; in the meantime, I'll look after my own humanity.