Bill Bradley returned to his home town on the banks of the Mississippi River today to declare his candidacy for the presidency and present himself as a leader above politics who would renew Democratic commitments to end poverty and provide health care for all Americans.
Standing before an audience of about 1,500 people in front of Crystal City High School, Bradley reached out to liberal Democrats and independents who worry that the nation's unprecedented prosperity has not reached the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
"The economy soars, but some of us are slipping behind," Bradley said in a calm but forceful voice. "Median family income seems stuck; personal debt and bankruptcy are at all-time highs; one out of five children live in poverty. . . . In so many ways, we have failed to use our prosperity to improve the well-being of all our citizens."
Bradley's formal announcement today marked the beginning of a new phase in his campaign, one designed to draw distinctions with Vice President Gore and convince Democratic voters that he would be the stronger general election candidate next year.
As the lone rival to Gore, Bradley remains an underdog in his bid for the Democratic nomination. But his campaign has made significant strides this year, in part because of strong doubts about whether Gore has the political strength to defeat Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
In national polls, Gore remains the overwhelming choice of Democratic voters. But recent polls in New Hampshire indicate that Bradley has significantly reduced Gore's once strong lead in that state, which holds the first primary.
The test for Bradley, who has avoided addressing major issues, is whether he will be able to make a compelling case that he has the answers to the problems he has identified.
The hometown crowd cheered Bradley when he told them: "I'm more interested in leadership than polls and politics. And I believe we need a new kind of leadership, a leadership that puts the people front and center -- not the president. A leadership that understands the people's fears as well as their hopes. A leadership that respects the people as well as challenges them."
Bradley repeatedly returned to the theme that at a time of national prosperity, major problems still exist. Yet in the end, the speech was long on rhetoric and short on specifics.
"To me the American dream is not just for the lucky among us," a low-key Bradley told the crowd. "Isn't it just common sense that we make sure every child in America is covered with health care? Isn't it just common sense that we protect our natural world from destruction, and do what it takes to achieve racial unity? . . . What others may call idealism is a common-sense reality."
Bradley said government has an important role to play in addressing the country's needs. "Government cannot be all things to all people all the time," he said. "Nor should it do trifling things much of the time for some people. But it should do some large and essential things all the time for the whole nation."
The former New York Knicks basketball star and three-term New Jersey senator also emphasized changing the political system and received the strongest ovation when he declared: "We can mute the voice of big money in our elections."
Bradley faces a tough fight challenging the incumbent vice president of his own party. But he has built a credible campaign organization and raised nearly $12 million as of June 30 -- roughly two-thirds the amount raised by Gore.
Although he was a moderate in the Senate, Bradley has in the current campaign repeatedly attempted to challenge Gore from the left. He has hired a staff with strong liberal credentials, giving him entree into a number of activist groups in Democratic circles, and he has been willing to take stronger stands on such liberal litmus-test issues as gun control and campaign finance reform.
In a national poll released this week by the Washington Post and ABC News, Gore led Bradley 69 percent to 24 percent among Democratic voters likely to cast ballots in primaries.
Bradley's only significant source of support came from voters who dislike President Clinton. What this suggests is that Bradley has yet to draw support because voters like and agree with him; instead, much -- if not most -- of his support is from voters using him to express their dislike of Clinton.
Among Democrats who approve of the job Clinton is doing, Gore's lead jumped to 74 percent to 20 percent, while among the minority of Democrats who disapprove of Clinton's job performance, voters were split, 47 percent to 47 percent, between Gore and Bradley. Similarly, the Gore lead shot up to 78 percent to 16 percent among Democrats who have a favorable view of Clinton. Gore's advantage fell to 58 percent to 35 percent among those with an unfavorable view of the president.
Although Bradley has stressed his liberal stance on racial issues and his support for tough gun control legislation, Gore still holds a strong lead over Bradley among blacks (85 percent to 15 percent) and among gun control advocates (73 percent to 21 percent).
The one issue that seems to be working for Bradley is campaign finance reform. Among the one-third of Democrats who say the issue of campaign reform is very important to their vote, Gore's margin over Bradley falls to 57 percent to 34 percent.
In contrast to the national polls -- and to surveys in Iowa, where Bradley has campaigned extensively -- New Hampshire voters are giving the former senator a much more favorable look. A Franklin Pierce College/WNDS-TV poll released last Thursday and a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll released soon after that found that Gore led Bradley by 44 percent to 37 percent and by 40 percent to 36 percent, respectively, among voters who said they will vote in the state's Democratic primary.
One of Bradley's challenges is to build genuine enthusiasm for his insurgent candidacy. Although he enjoys a certain star quality because of his professional basketball career, as a candidate he has been criticized as lacking charisma.
Perhaps in response to that, Bradley said today that he would offer Americans a different kind of politics. "There are two kinds of politicians," he said. "Those who talk and promise and those who listen and do. I know which one I am."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane and researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.