When Vice President Gore and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley appear at a town hall meeting at Dartmouth College Wednesday night, they are likely to try to draw sharp distinctions with each other.

Bradley already has labeled the vice president "timid" and himself "bold" in their approaches to domestic issues. Gore has gone in two directions, branding some of Bradley's policies "a throwback to an earlier generation" of free-spending liberalism while accusing his rival of being a disloyal Democrat for voting to cut spending during President Ronald Reagan's first term.

The reality is that Gore and Bradley share similar views and even many of the same policy priorities. "Historically," said Robert Borosage of the progressive Campaign for America's Future, "there's not much difference between the two."

But the campaign has revealed differences in both style and substance and it is those areas that will be put under the microscope as the competition for the Democratic nomination intensifies.

Where Bradley and Gore have diverged most is in their conception of the presidency. Bradley describes the office as a place to focus on a few large problems, moving the country slowly toward a consensus for solving them. Gore, like President Clinton, appears more eclectic in his priorities, spreading projected budgetary surpluses around to more programs, looking for more modest improvements.

Since Labor Day, Bradley and Gore both have addressed three large domestic problems: the lack of health insurance for about 45 million Americans; the persistence of child poverty in an era of economic prosperity; and the burdens on parents attempting to balance the responsibilities of work and family. In each case, Gore has tried to preempt Bradley by delivering his speech first, although sometimes in a hurried and ad hoc way.

The greatest area of debate has been over health care, where Bradley has proposed a $65 billion-a-year plan that he said would eventually ensure coverage for 95 percent of Americans. Gore has offered a more limited plan, valued at $10 billion to $15 billion annually, beginning with a pledge to cover all children by 2005.

The most obvious area of similarity is in their prescriptions for combating child poverty. Once again Bradley said he is prepared to spend more money than Gore, but their policy proposals are nearly identical. Each candidate, for example, would seek to raise the minimum wage, expand the earned income tax credit (EITC) and supply more federal assistance for child care costs.

While Bradley and Gore agree on many ideas for addressing child poverty, they have approached the issue from opposing camps in the acrimonious debate over welfare reform that split the Democratic Party, with Bradley opposed and Gore in favor of the bill enacted in 1996. On health care, they were allied in the effort to enact a national plan during Clinton's first term.

"There is a significant philosophical difference on poverty," said Will Marshall of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). "I don't think there's a big philosophical difference on health care."

Doug Berman, Bradley's campaign chairman, said Bradley comes to his positions from a different perspective. "When you step back, what you can see is that Bill is articulating a vision of a relationship of the president to the people and a sense of what a president should be doing in that job."

That difference shows up more clearly on health care, where each drew different lessons from the failure of Clinton's plan in 1994, even while sharing the goal of expanding coverage to the uninsured.

Gore, apparently wary of association with the Clinton debacle, offered a plan built on incrementalism, pledging first to provide health care coverage to all children by 2005. He would do this by expanding the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is administered by the states, and offering coverage to parents of children eligible for that program or Medicaid.

"Gore's plan is very much more cautious," said James Mongan, chief executive officer at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a health policy official in the Carter administration. Mongan said Gore may feel that, based on the 1994 defeat, the country is not ready for a big health care plan. "He's clearly learned that lesson and maybe over-learned that lesson," Mongan said.

Bradley, while offering a comprehensive strategy to move toward universal coverage, shied away from anything that smacked of a big government plan, the label that helped sink Clinton's proposal. Bradley's plan would require all children to have health insurance and would provide government subsidies for low-income families to pay all or part of the cost. He would provide access to coverage to adults as well, again with the help of government subsidies.

But in creating his plan, Bradley eschewed the mandates and cost controls of the Clinton plan and seeks to expand access to health care coverage through the existing system of private insurance, not by creating a new government bureaucracy. "He learned you don't want a complex . . . edifice," Mongan said, "so you do something more stripped down."

Gore's blast that the plan represents a "throwback" to an earlier era appears based on the assertion that Bradley is fiscally irresponsible because he would spend virtually all of the non-Social Security surplus (estimated at about $1 trillion over the next 10 years) on health care alone, while reserving none of that money for preserving the solvency of Medicare or other domestic priorities.

Health policy analysts agreed that by committing so much more money, the Bradley plan would more rapidly expand coverage.

Ted Marmor of the Yale School of Management said Gore was exaggerating the differences between the two approaches. "I think this is roughly the difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with Bradley being more adventurous and Gore trying to make a mountain out of a molehill."

Marmor also took issue with Gore's characterization of the Bradley plan as left-of-center in philosophy, even as he critiqued Bradley's proposal for what he regarded as serious flaws. "I see Bradley's hopes as more ambitious," Marmor said, "but his plan is a very hesitant move around an aspiration that is not so much left-of-center as quite close to what Americans want."

One sign that Bradley's plan may not be a conventional liberal solution is the praise it has received from some conservatives. "This really is a true alternative he's laying out and I think it's worth looking at," said Stuart Butler of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Jacob Hacker of Harvard University said Gore's attack on Bradley's plan reveals the eroding consensus among Democrats on the commitment to a national health care plan. But the two plans taken together, he said, show how the political terrain has changed since 1994. "Both of these proposals are more modest than the major reform initiatives being considered in 1993 and 1994," Hacker said. Neither calls for cost controls and not even Bradley's plan, which "requires" coverage for all children, calls for mandates to enforce the requirement.

Gore supporters criticize Bradley's child poverty speech as much for what he did not say as for what he proposed. "I find it a matter of some interest that he is not proposing as president to reverse the judgment of 1996 and I wonder why not, if he still believes that the approach is fundamentally flawed," said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House and now at the University of Maryland.

The DLC's Marshall said Bradley had adopted New Democrat solutions to poverty by emphasizing policies that reward work but failed to acknowledge what he called a compact of "reciprocal responsibility" between society and those who receive assistance. "That's the bargain that ending welfare as we know it ushered in," Marshall said. "Oddly, Mr. Bradley doesn't mention it."

Bradley's press secretary Eric Hauser took issue with that. "He has talked significantly about personal responsibility," Hauser said. But he added that government should do more provide opportunity for low-income Americans, particularly children.

CAPTION: At a theater in Vermont, across the river from Hanover, N.H., Bill Bradley reviews briefing book for tonight's exchange with Vice President Gore.