An aggressive Vice President Gore intensified his attacks on former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley here tonight, accusing his rival of walking away from the fight when their party was on the defensive, while issuing a personal challenge for weekly debates this fall.
"How about it, Bill?" Gore said from the stage, looking directly at the table where Bradley was sitting. "If the answer is yes, stand up and wave your hand."
Bradley was non-committal, but his growing strength as a challenger to the vice president set the stage for tonight's joint appearance by the two contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Gore arrived here today determined to put on the defensive a man he had ignored for months.
Gore criticized Bradley directly for supporting then-President Ronald Reagan's budget cuts in 1981 and for quitting the Senate in 1996 when Democrats were fighting against the new Republican majority in Congress. "I never walked away," he said. "I decided to stay and fight."
Gore then exhorted the audience, which was heavily tilted in his favor, to continue to battle the Republicans as his supporters waved blue-and-white placards that read "Stay & Fight."
Bradley, in his speech to the Iowa Democratic Party dinner tonight, defended his credentials as a Democrat, recalling the moment he became a Democrat in 1964 because of the party's fight for civil rights. And he evoked memories of other Democratic battles as he called on his party to once again work for big ideas and great causes.
"We are Democrats," he said. "We've done big things before and we can do those big things again."
But rather than directly responding to Gore's attacks, Bradley warned his party against negative politics that he said would alienate the voters. "But to me, that takes discipline," Bradley said. "It takes discipline to be positive because it's easy to slip the other way."
Tonight's dinner marked the second time in two weeks the two had appeared on the same stage together but the first since the vice president shook up his campaign operation.
Bradley has moved up on Gore in polls in several northeastern states, including New Hampshire, the site of the nation's first primary next year. But here in Iowa, whose precinct caucuses will begin the nominating process, Gore still enjoys the advantage.
The Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner brought several thousand Democratic activists to Des Moines tonight. In a colorful display of old-fashioned retail politics, Gore's campaign team plastered the convention center with placards and signs, nearly obscuring any Bradley signs and posters.
Earlier in the day, Gore held a rally and march to the convention center, flanked by some of his key supporters, including Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, state attorney general Tom Miller and Rep. Leonard Boswell.
Bradley, who compared speaking to the heavily Gore audience to playing in the Boston Garden as a New York Knick, staged his own get-together a block from the convention center that featured former basketball star Bill Walton, actress Olympia Dukakis and Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.).
Gore sprang to life tonight, delivering one of his feistiest performances of the year as his Iowa campaign team put on a show of force designed to send the signal that he had gotten a wake up call after months of lackluster campaigning.
Bradley seemed unmoved by Gore's tactics, and his aides said they would not let Gore force them off their own game plan by the sudden interest of the vice president to debate.
Bradley spokeswoman Anita Dunn accused Gore of practicing "the tired politics of the past" and quoted civil war general Robert E. Lee as saying, "When you're too weak to defend, you must attack."
Dunn said Bradley would be ready to debate well before the end of the year.
Tonight's gathering came amid growing tensions between the Gore and Bradley camps, and only a few days before a crucial meeting of the leadership of the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles. Gore hopes to win labor's endorsement, but Bradley has been working overtime to persuade labor leaders to remain neutral.
Harkin told reporters that a decision by labor not to endorse Gore next week could mean a long and bloody fight for the nomination. The Iowa senator, who is close to many union leaders, said he believed Gore would eventually win the nomination regardless, but said, "He'll be depleted."
As he campaigned through Iowa today, Gore attacked Bradley for a series of votes over the past two decades, including efforts to phase out the subsidy for ethanol, a crucial program for Iowa farmers, as well as Bradley's support for school voucher experiments.
Bradley aides were quick to point out that one Bradley amendment on ethanol that Gore had singled out for criticism had the support of 25 Senate Democrats, including several Gore supporters.
Gore's strongest language, however, was saved for Bradley's support for the Reagan budget cuts and for what happened after the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.
"In 1981, when Reaganomics was put up for a vote, and some Democrats felt that, for their political survival they had to vote for the slashing budget cuts that raised child poverty and diminished health care coverage and hurt public schools, I never walked away. I decided to stay and fight."
"When Newt Gingrich took over the Congress and tried to reinforce Reaganomics, some walked away," he continued. "I decided to stay and fight."
Gore's "stay and fight" refrain brought his supporters to their feet in the big convention center.
Bradley advisers pointed out that the former senator had been a leader in opposing Reagan's 1981 tax cut, which they said had brought massive deficits that prevented more assistance for key social problems.
In his speech tonight, Bradley called on Gore to join him in elevating American politics. Pointing toward the friendly home run competition between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa the last two baseball seasons, Bradley said, "Why can't it be Vice President Al Gore pushing Bill Bradley and Bill Bradley pushing Al Gore to be the best we can be so the national interest will benefit?"
Gore's campaign advisers hope the Iowa caucuses, which put a premium on institutional support and organizational muscle, will give him some momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary, where Bradley is leading in recent polls.
The vice president has won the support of several powerful Iowa labor unions, which can provide the foot soldiers to help turn out voters to the caucuses.
This afternoon, Gore refused to repeat the criticism leveled at Bradley by some Gore supporters, who have attacked the former senator as a "quitter." But he didn't back away from the characterization.
"That's not a word that I've used to describe him. Others have," Gore said, mentioning two New York Democrats who are backing the vice president.
When Gore ducked another question about what label he would attach to a Democrat who has done what he accused Bradley of doing, Harkin volunteered: "Not my kind."
CAPTION: Vice President Gore takes a question from the audience during a rally at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge.