Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley will appear side-by-side for the first time Wednesday night, but will they go head-to-head?

Bradley advisers say they are preparing for possible attacks by Gore when the two men make their first joint television appearance--even though the rules are designed to keep things civil between the two Democratic presidential hopefuls. "If it comes to that, we'll take care of it in the way that seems appropriate at the time," Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser said cryptically today.

The format is supposed to be a "town meeting," with the candidates fielding questions from an audience. There's no room, theoretically, for give-and-take. But Bradley has been under strong criticism from Gore ever since his campaign began to catch fire last month, and in recent days the basketball Hall of Famer has begun to complain about the vice president's sharp elbows.

But Gore said there will be no verbal punching. "It's not a debate," he told reporters late Monday in Nashua. "It's a joint town hall meeting."

The one-hour session will air on CNN beginning at 8 p.m. EDT.

Both men mixed a little bit of campaigning with a lot of preparation for the Wednesday event, the first of at least seven face-offs they will have between now and early March. Their race, once expected to be an easy stroll for Gore, has turned into struggle.

A poll released today by Quinnipiac College shows Bradley with an 8-point lead in the New Hampshire primary. At the same time, national polls continue to show the vice president leading by large margins in most of the country.

Bradley walked a few blocks alongside campaign finance reform crusader Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who hopes to complete her nearly 4,000-mile walk across the country in Washington in time for her 90th birthday. After a speech on election reform before a cheering audience in Claremont, Bradley holed up with his debate coaches near Hanover, where the town meeting will be held at Dartmouth College. Spokesman Hauser would not identify the debate team.

Meanwhile, Gore held an anti-drug event at the statehouse in Concord and stopped by the local diner to shake hands. Then it was back to Bedford, where he commandeered a wing of the Wayfarer Inn and imported a dozen advisers, including campaign chairman Tony Coelho, chief of staff Charles Burson, pollster Harrison Hickman, policy adviser Elaine Kamarck and the media team of Carter Eskew, Bob Shrum, Bill Knapp and Mike Donilon. Former New York representative Tom Downey, who played Jack Kemp in Gore's 1996 debate prep sessions, is sitting in as Bradley this time.

About a week ago, Gore was given a thick black binder crammed with information on national, international and local issues. On Monday, advisers recorded Gore's rehearsals and he reviewed the videotape, lightheartedly critiquing his performance, aides said.

Today, a group of New Hampshire strategists, many of them advisers to Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), peppered Gore with questions about local issues ranging from his position on special education funding to how many submarines should be built at the Portsmouth naval yard.

Gore spokesman Chris Lehane--who has been named press secretary of the retooled campaign--said Bradley should expect continued criticisms from the vice president. Bradley's staff may call it "negative"; the Gore team calls it comparison. "It is certainly part of any campaign to compare and contrast candidates and what they stood and fought for," Lehane said.

Is that an attack? Tune in and see.