Is Bill Bradley, who has been surging in New Hampshire on the "authenticity" issue, just like all the others? In this week's Time, Margaret Carlson, who got the story from Adweek, a trade publication, tells us the disillusioning news that he may be more Madison Avenue than Main Street: For 18 months, the above-it-all candidate met on the quiet with a cluster of admen called the "Crystal Group," after his home town, who gave him a personality touchup that turned out to be ideal for the Granite State.

Bradley's spokesman, Eric Hauser, scoffs at the idea that anyone would tamper with his candidate's persona. "Bill Bradley doesn't need anyone to tell him how to act. These were admen, all volunteers, meeting with him to make campaign commercials."

Consultants, a breed Bradley supposedly disdains, became a super-sensitive subject when Vice President Gore--who has the largest, most expensive collection of them in political history--was found out to have one who was trying to convert him to Alpha-maledom. Naomi Wolf, author of a book called "Promiscuities," was being paid $15,000 a month and put Gore into a three-button earth-tone brown suit for the New Hampshire debate. Her pay has since been cut and Gore showed up recently in blue serge.

Image-shifting is rife in the first primary, which has become riveting political drama. Veteran Republican player Tom Rath said the level of interest is so high that "you'd think the vote was ten days, not ten weeks, out."

Senator John McCain, the Arizona challenger, is rolling through the countryside to ever larger audiences in his bus, "Straight Talk Express." He wants to upset George W. Bush's applecart in a state where upsetting applecarts is a madly popular sport. He made W. so nervous that Mr. Inevitable signed up for a joint appearance on Dec. 2 in Manchester.

Bush strategists seriously misread New Hampshire. They kept saying that they wanted to show strength all over the country. That's the last thing to say to New Hampshire, the state which leads trends, thank you very much, doesn't follow them.

McCain has to win New Hampshire; Bush does not. If McCain upsets Bush, he has made his point, which is that the president's son, in spite of his pedigree, money and endorsements, is not invincible. If Bush loses, it would be embarrassing, but not fatal. In their Manchester meeting, McCain has to show that he has more depth and knowledge than his rival, and less of a temper than reputed. Bush has to demonstrate that he is, as he claims, "plenty smart."

The question came up in the wake of a misbegotten interview with a lippy Boston television reporter named Andy Hiller, who made the Texas governor look ill-informed and shirty. It wasn't that he knew only one of four Asian leaders' names he was asked about. Who cares? And it wasn't that he made an ill-advised defense of the military dictator who seized power in democratic Pakistan, or even that his timing turned out to be terrible--the "stability" he credited the general with promising literally blew up in his face when Pakistanis rocketed U.S. installations in the jumpy capital. The point was his inability to handle a wise guy. Hiller is in your face, but he's nothing like the scoundrels the occupant of the Oval Office constantly has to deal with.

Finally, on NBC's "Today" show, in an interview with Matt Lauer, W. said he knows what he should have done--what Bill Bradley did when he met Hiller. Bradley told him, in effect, that he wouldn't play "Jeopardy," but would answer serious foreign policy questions.

John McCain at one point suggested he would not run on his war record. But his posters show a young bomber pilot on an aircraft carrier. His best-selling book, "Faith of My Fathers," is a harrowing account of his ordeal in a Vietnam prison. No more need be known about his character than that he defied and resisted his captors for the full 5 1/2 years. On Veterans Day, he had an emotional reunion with POW cellmates. But Vietnam is a two-edged sword. Democrats tempted to switch for him might be turned off on hearing his passionately held and contrary views on the war and the news that Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon's confederate in prolonging the war, is in his kitchen cabinet.

Similarly, Bill Bradley, who at one time put aside his basketball past, is having second thoughts. He revived the old days on the court with a spectacular Madison Square Garden fund-raiser in which he pulled around himself teammates who testified to his agility and big-heartedness.

Gore and Bush do not have such obviously telegenic buddies. Gore's most important allies are the Democratic state chairmen; W.'s are, of course, his parents. But he can't drag George and Barbara Bush around with him. He is a man who is trying to prove he is grown up.