On the basketball courts where he first made his name, Bill Bradley had the talent to succeed going one-on-one. All this week, in an early test as an underdog presidential candidate, he has tried the same move on the far-flung voters of California.
A few of them, anyway. From a commuter ferry in San Francisco to a farmers' market in Hollywood, and at small churches and community centers up and down the coast, the former New Jersey senator and NBA star is relying on eclectic stops and intimate settings to introduce his budding campaign to the Golden State. Its huge and diverse electorate, which Vice President Gore has been courting relentlessly, will likely play a decisive role in choosing the Democratic nominee for president next year.
Bradley's marathon nine-day tour, which concludes this weekend, is hardly sound-bite politics as usual in California, whose 33 million residents rarely see candidates appeal for votes anywhere these days but on television.
Without any ads on the airwaves yet, in fact often without so much as a stump speech or a microphone, Bradley has been roaming the state holding informal and quite general conversations with small groups of voters on complex subjects such as improving health care and racial understanding.
Political analysts here call it a risky decision even at this formative stage of the presidential race, for the latest polls are showing that Gore has twice as much support among Democratic voters in the giant state. But Bradley seems to be embracing the strategy with a serene confidence.
"The purpose of this trip is to show Californians the same respect as I have for any other voter in America," he told an audience of about 50 people gathered Wednesday evening at the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club for a forum on women's athletics. "I believe the voters of California would like to have the same kind of personal touch candidates give them in Iowa or New Hampshire."
Bradley dropped by a youth center in San Diego; he met with low-wage health care workers trying to form a union in Sacramento and with environmental activists in San Francisco. On Wednesday, he traveled to Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and criticized the Clinton administration for failing to help more children out of poverty. Afterward, he told reporters that he is better suited for the White House than Gore because he has a "more varied life experience."
On Thursday, Bradley visited teenage runaways staying at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center and said he supports tougher hate-crime laws. Later at a news conference, he said he favors a variety of new restrictions on handgun purchases. He also is carving out time for fund-raising. Thursday night, media mogul Barry Diller held a $1,000-a-plate dinner for him at a Beverly Hills hotel that raised more than $800,000.
Throughout his trip, Bradley has rejected suggestions that by challenging Gore, he could hurt the Democratic Party's chances of winning the White House. "I've always believed, whether it was in basketball or politics, that competition was good," he said Monday in Sacramento, "that you're a better team in the finals because you've had competition."
As Bradley headed back to the San Francisco area late today to wrap up his California campaign swing, Gore rolled though Los Angeles, yet again. This time, in a midday event that a few local television stations briefly carried live, he appeared at a high school to moderate a forum on improving school safety.
Because of its size and wealth, California is always an important proving ground for presidential candidates. Its influence on each party's nominating process will be even larger next year because the state has moved its presidential primary up a few months, to March 7. Gore already has made dozens of trips around California and is building a large network of support among labor groups and deep-pocketed donors in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. He also has close ties to the popular new Democratic governor, Gray Davis.
Bradley's campaign is just getting started, but he is not a complete stranger to California. Since he left the Senate in 1996 after serving three terms, he has been a visiting professor at Stanford University, and he is well-known among political and sports figures in the state. It also doesn't hurt that one of his closest friends and most prominent supporters, Phil Jackson, has just been hired to coach this city's beloved but inept basketball team, the Lakers.
The most media attention that Bradley received this week in Los Angeles came when Jackson, his former teammate on the New York Knicks, campaigned with him.
"He's not even on the same radar screen here with Gore yet," said Fabian Nunez, political director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents 750,000 union members. "It's definitely going to be an uphill battle for him, but he could make life difficult for Gore. The thing about Bradley is that he's good with people, very relaxed, and some people think his experience in the NBA and then in politics is a good mix."
Campaigning, Bradley's soft-spoken, unscripted style -- at some events he listened as much as he spoke -- has been well-received by California voters this week. Manuel Garcia, a Los Angeles resident who met him at a stop today, said he appreciated the candidate's direct approach. "This is new for California," he said. "My sense is people will like it."
Then again, it is difficult to find much to oppose in many of the broad themes that Bradley is promoting so far. In his speech on child poverty at the Para los Nin~os center in Los Angeles, he even skipped a few lines on specific proposals he supported, saying afterward that the time for details will come later. The small crowd on hand applauded heartily when Bradley was done, but when the host asked if anyone had a question for the candidate, no one raised a hand.
Special correspondent Cassandra Stern contributed to this report.
CAPTION: At YWCA in Glendale, Calif., Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley is applauded by his wife, Ernestine, and Laila Santos, left, director of a breast cancer program at the Y, after his remarks regarding his wife's treatment for the disease.