Bill Bradley, shrugging off sustained criticism from Vice President Gore about the expansiveness of his health care proposals, went even further today by declaring that gun violence is a public health emergency requiring urgent federal action.
The timing and tone of Bradley's remarks suggested that he remains comfortable running to the left of Gore in their quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"If you look at the illnesses and the injuries and the health care cost of gun violence, it is substantial," Bradley said. "And that's why when we're thinking about health care, we have to broaden it not just to the hospital or the doctor."
As his first major campaign proposal, Bradley called in June for a national system of registration for all handguns. He said today that was "the toughest gun control measure of any candidate who has ever run for president of the United States."
"The vice president has been too timid," Bradley said. "If we can register automobiles, we ought to be able to register handguns."
Gore has proposed requiring gun owners to obtain a license. In response to Bradley's dig, Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane said: "It's been Al Gore who has stayed and fought against the Republicans for common-sense gun reform the last several years."
Bradley spoke at a community center in Spanish Harlem, where local youngsters had painted a sheet to say: "Bienvenidos Bill Bradley A El Barrio." Among the 300 people who attended was Lula Johnson, 73, a retired factory worker who receives a $773 Social Security check each month. Johnson said by the time she has paid for her insulin, potassium, water tablets and blood pressure medicine, the only food she can afford is neck bones, pig's feet and rice.
Johnson was among those applauding when Bradley ticked off the basics of the health care plan he announced in September--coverage of prescription drugs for people on Medicare, guaranteed medical insurance coverage for children and a promise of affordable coverage for adults.
By yoking his gun control and health insurance proposals, Bradley is creating a potentially powerful argument. Polls show that a majority of Americans favors gun controls and that health insurance has risen to the top of the list of Americans' concerns.
Gore also made gun control his theme today. He held a news conference to urge Congress to pass meaningful gun-control legislation before adjourning this year. "There is a growing consensus in this country, above party and partisanship, to get the guns off our streets, out of our schools and away from kids and criminals," he said.
Gore has criticized Bradley's health care plan as "ill-considered" and impossible to implement while maintaining a balanced federal budget. Gore has said it would cost more than $1 trillion and would exceed the surplus over the next 10 years.
Speaking more to the cameras than to the senior citizens and community leaders, Bradley acknowledged, "The program that I've offered is not inexpensive." But he added, "I began this journey by saying that when there were big problems, I was going to offer big solutions."
"People will argue about whether the numbers are correct. The numbers are correct," he said without elaborating. "I stand by the numbers."
Earlier today, Bradley ruled out accepting his party's vice presidential nomination. Asked by Bryant Gumbel on CBS's "The Early Show" if he could envision himself as Gore's running mate, Bradley twice said, "No."