With the race suddenly tightening, Vice President Gore and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley foreshadowed a "spirited debate" for the Democratic presidential nomination here yesterday, sounding similar themes while displaying strikingly different styles before an audience of party activists and officials.
Gore took a swipe at Bradley over school vouchers as the two rivals made back-to-back speeches to the fall meeting of the Democratic National Committee. Bradley did not directly engage Gore on the issues but urged the audience to let the voters, and not party bosses, determine the outcome of the nomination fight.
Both targeted Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner, for his opposition to expanding hate-crimes legislation in his home state and to stricter gun control legislation.
Their speeches to the DNC, an organization that is publicly neutral but whose members overwhelmingly support the vice president, came a day after a new CNN/Time poll showed Bradley edging ahead of Gore for the first time in New Hampshire and amid increased concern among Gore supporters that the nomination fight will be far more competitive and costly than they had hoped.
For Gore, it was an opportunity to reassure nervous supporters that he and his operation have turned around a wobbly campaign. For Bradley, it was a chance to reach out to the party officials who are mostly partial to Gore but who have been impressed by his well-financed and well-organized operation.
Bradley and Gore agreed on most issues yesterday, as they paraded their party credentials and their commitment to economic justice, civil rights, women's rights, educational opportunity and gun control.
But it was Gore who made the most direct appeal for support, opening his speech by saying, "I want to be your nominee, and I'm going to work my heart out to earn your vote." Bradley said he was "energized" over the prospect of "a real contest with real choices decided by voters in caucuses and primaries across the nation."
In a relaxed, conversational tone, Bradley acknowledged the reality that many of those in the room have already publicly or privately committed to support Gore at the convention in Los Angeles next summer. But he appealed to them by saying his goal, like theirs, is a total Democratic victory in 2000.
"I want you to know whether you're for me or against me, we share that same goal of mutual respect," Bradley said. "[Rep.] Charlie Rangel [D-N.Y.] may not be for me, but I sure want him to be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. [House Democratic Leader] Dick Gephardt [D-Mo.] may not be for me, but I sure want him to be speaker of the House of Representatives."
Gore was more animated and aggressive in his presentation, and also occasionally walked away from the podium, using a wireless microphone to deliver portions of his standard stump speech. But in comparison to his performance at the DNC last spring, Gore drew praise from supporters for his improved oratory.
"They were both hitting very similar themes," said Ohio chairman David Leland, a Gore supporter. "But Al Gore's speech was perhaps the best speech of his I've ever heard."
Rod Julander, vice chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said the difference between the Gore of last spring and yesterday "was like night and day." But Julander, who supports Bradley, said he believed the public may prefer "a more low-key, relaxed style."
Bradley spoke first after an overnight schedule change that allowed the vice president to close the three-day meeting at which Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell--a Gore supporter--was elected the party's new general chairman.
Bradley praised President Clinton for promoting racial harmony and the Clinton-Gore administration for economic stewardship. "We are doing very well," he said, but then added, "What else is there to do?"
Peering over reading glasses, Bradley ticked off the major themes of his campaign to date: reducing child poverty, registering all handguns, dramatically expanded access to affordable health care, civil rights and a reinvigorated political process that puts "at the center of political involvement service to your community and your country."
Bradley closed by telling the DNC members he hoped that he and Gore "can show people that politics doesn't have to be about negative campaigning," but again asked that the decision be left "where it should be, and that is with the people."
Gore entered the back of the hotel ballroom, making his way through cheering college students and DNC members to the sounds of "Love Train."
Twice in his speech he invoked his newest campaign slogan as he pledged to "make change work for working families." His speech also offered a checklist of pledges to key Democratic constituencies, from abortion rights to affirmative action to veterans benefits.
His most direct reference to Bradley came as he talked about education. Bradley supported limited experimentation with school vouchers while in the Senate, and yesterday Gore said to strong applause: "I have never been for vouchers. I have always opposed vouchers and I always will."
Like Bradley, Gore criticized Bush on the issue of hate crimes legislation, citing two vicious crimes, one racial and the other related to homosexuality.
"If James Byrd is dragged behind the back of a pickup truck by bigots because of his race, when Matthew Shepard is crucified on a split-rail fence by bigots, how can any political leader in either party say that there is no difference between hate crimes and other crimes?" Gore said.
CAPTION: Members cheer on presidential candidates Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley, both of whom spoke yesterday at fall DNC meeting.