Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley challenged others in the White House race yesterday to join him in pledging that their parties would not use the unlimited "soft money" contributions that fueled a campaign spending spree in 1996.

In a National Press Club speech outlining a menu of legislative proposals, including taxpayer-financed congressional campaigns, the former New Jersey senator said that if he won the Democratic nomination, he would be ready to sign a compact with the Republican nominee "not to raise or spend soft money in the general election," even if it were legally available.

"Soft money" refers to the gifts that corporations, unions or individuals give in unlimited amounts to political parties--not candidates--to finance voter registration and turnout drives. These six-figure gifts were also used in 1996 and 1998 for "issue ads" designed to bolster federal candidates, who cannot accept contributions of more than $1,000 from individuals or $5,000 from political action committees.

Bradley noted that Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who lead early polls for the Democratic and Republican nominations, "have both said they support changing the soft-money system. However, both reportedly have directed their top fund-raisers to begin raising soft money for the general election."

Tony Coelho, general chairman of the Gore campaign, gave Bradley's challenge the back of his hand. Coelho said in a statement that Bradley "never championed" campaign finance reforms in the Senate, as Gore had, and "now would leave the party and every Democratic candidate from school board to U.S. senator to fend for themselves while George W. Bush and the Republican money machine try to buy the election."

In fact, Bradley had made it clear that he was not advocating unilateral disarmament by the Democrats, saying, "A genuine commitment to reform takes two farsighted leaders--not just one." Eric Hauser, Bradley's press secretary, added, "It's too bad the Gore campaign has decided to defend the soft-money status quo."

But Marla Romash, a Gore aide, said, "Bradley's statement signals people, 'Don't contribute to the Democratic Party,' " and would leave Democrats vulnerable to a Republican Party "that shows no scruples in its fund-raising." Romash also denied that Gore has directed fund-raisers to seek soft-money for the party.

Bush's press secretary, Mindy Tucker, reiterated that he supports a ban on soft money from unions and corporations--but not from individuals--and declined Bradley's pledge: "Let's let the candidates earn their party's nomination and then the debates between the parties can begin."

Support for Bradley's proposal came from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another Republican contender and the principal GOP sponsor of legislation that would ban "soft money"--a bill backed by Gore and Bradley but stymied so far by opposition from Republican congressional leaders.

McCain said, "I have promised in the past that I will refuse to engage in the use of soft money if I am my party's nominee for president. I stand by this pledge and challenge the other presidential candidates, both Democrat and Republican, to make the same commitment."

Bradley said the rush of money was the main force eroding trust in democracy--"a great stone wall that comes between the people and their representatives."

Going beyond what others in either party have proposed, Bradley also endorsed public financing for congressional races. He would use taxpayer funds to finance 2-1 matching grants for contributions of up to $250 for the primaries and full financing for the general election for candidates who accept spending limits.

His proposal also calls for free television time during the final 60 campaign days, Election Day voter registration, easier absentee voting and leave time for workers to cast ballots.

The Republican National Committee accused Bradley of "hypocrisy" on the issue, noting that in his last Senate race in 1990, he had rejected a proposal from challenger Christine Todd Whitman (R) to limit spending to $3 million for each side. Bradley said yesterday that the charge was "ludicrous," and that Whitman, now the governor, had made the suggestion when "I had raised $12 million and spent probably more than $3 million and she had $100,000 in the bank."