Vice President Gore dared Bill Bradley today to "throw caution to the wind" and accept his challenge of biweekly debates in their increasingly tight battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"I say, let 'er rip," Gore growled to supporters here. "Let's change things and shake up the system."
Gore stepped up his criticism of Bradley, jabbing the former senator for crafting an "ill-considered" health care plan and for quitting politics when congressional Democrats most needed foot soldiers.
"I've never turned my back on the Democratic Party. I've never been tempted to resign the party or run as an independent," Gore said in reference to Bradley's resignation from the Senate in 1996, two years after Republicans took control of Congress. "I never backed away from a tough fight, such as when [Newt] Gingrich and his forces took over the Congress. I stayed and fought and I fought hard."
Gore also brushed off questions about a new report accusing his campaign chairman of mismanaging the U.S. pavilion at the 1998 world's fair in Portugal. State Department auditors said Tony Coelho approved "questionable" contractor payments, hired relatives and received a $300,000 personal loan while overseeing the expo.
"Tony Coelho is doing a terrific job," Gore said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "He's my close friend, and he's going to continue doing a great job."
Gore also said in the interview that he believes President Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky "damaged the office" of the presidency. "But I think that he's recovered from that," Gore added.
Gore said he stands by his impeachment-day assertion that history will view Clinton as one of the greatest U.S. presidents, but today put the remark in the context of a partisan fight on Capitol Hill.
"We were in the midst of political combat, and I think that fighting back to try to prevent a political injustice from occurring justifies drawing the line in the sand and saying, 'Hold on here. Look at the great achievements that we have,' " Gore said.
Despite assertions that he feels "liberated" by his new role of self-proclaimed "underdog," Gore's decisions to move his campaign headquarters to Nashville and adopt a new campaign style last week were responses to Bradley pulling even in fund-raising and polls in several key states. After ignoring the former basketball star for months, Gore is targeting his rival.
"Bill Bradley voted for Reaganomics," Gore said. "He voted for all those budget cuts. I did not. I've been a part of the effort to try to bring our country out of that time."
He also criticized Bradley's proposal to provide health care to most of the nation's 44 million uninsured by significantly expanding tax credits and federal subsidies to help families buy insurance.
"We do not need ill-considered schemes that put Medicare at risk or destroy good plans that already work," Gore said. "We don't need to abolish a good plan called Medicaid."
Bradley would replace Medicaid with a new approach that would shift responsibility from states to the federal government.
"What Bill Bradley is doing is articulating what he wants to do for the country and how in a very straightforward manner," said Bradley's spokesman, Eric Hauser. "Contrast that with the vice president, who today is clearly focused on nothing but political tactics, positioning and negative campaigning."
Bradley and Gore will appear at a Democratic dinner in Iowa Saturday and participate in a town hall forum Oct. 27 in New Hampshire. But Gore said he wants a debate every two weeks as part of his effort to spark more interest in the political process.
"Bill Bradley's a friend; I respect Bill Bradley," Gore told an enthusiastic crowd of 150 Democratic activists this morning. "I'm not going to run him down. I want to lift the party up."
In a pep rally late today with his New Hampshire volunteers, Gore made light of the recent tabloid headline, "Dead VP Walking," and promised his supporters that he, like Harry Truman, would prove the headline writers wrong.
Then, he yelled, the papers will write of him: "Back from the dead."