Vice President Gore, opening up a new front in his challenge to Bill Bradley, asserted that his Democratic rival would have to raise taxes and therefore put the nation's vibrant economy at risk to pay for a "deeply flawed" health care plan.
In an interview, Gore accused Bradley of concocting a health proposal for purely political reasons to appeal to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But Gore said Bradley's advisers "couldn't figure out" how to craft a plan to meet his early goal of near universal health care, adding scornfully, "It isn't universal health insurance, it's not even close."
The Saturday night interview in Portsmouth came at the end of a campaign day in which the vice president collected the long-awaited endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and expressed growing confidence about his prospects for winning the nomination.
Gore was both energetic and caustic throughout the 30-minute session, at one point drawing his hand across his throat in a slashing motion to illustrate his claim that Bradley would abolish national nursing home standards.
His latest attack on Bradley closed a week of escalating engagement between the two men, a development Gore said he relished as the rival campaigns prepare for the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 1 primary in New Hampshire, where the two men are running virtually even.
"I think it's time to drop the hockey puck," he said. "This is a real face-off here and it's very close and it's a hard-fought contest."
Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser today dismissed Gore's charges as "scare tactics" and a "distortion of reality." He said politics was not the driving force behind Bradley's health care plan. He said Bradley was motivated only by his desire to "cover as many Americans as possible." And he noted that the plan has drawn favorable comment from centrist Democrats, not just liberals.
Gore has become increasingly aggressive in taking the fight to Bradley, although he defended himself in the interview by saying "campaigns ought to be about issues." Sensitive to the possibility of a backlash, a senior Gore adviser said the campaign is "very closely" monitoring voter sentiment to detect whether the debate is viewed as too negative.
Gore acknowledged the "stiffness of the challenge" from Bradley "played a significant role" in forcing drastic changes in his own approach to the 2000 election. He said the campaign now has "intention and focus" that it lacked earlier in the year.
That sense of focus was evident in the Gore campaign's effort, led by the candidate, to attack Bradley's health care plan, the centerpiece of the former New Jersey senator's candidacy.
Last Thursday, Bradley told Washington Post editors that he felt so strongly about the need to expand health care coverage to millions of uninsured that, if necessary, he was prepared to raise taxes to pay for it--even though he said that he did not think that would be the case.
Hauser said today that Bradley was speaking hypothetically. "We're not talking about tax increases," Hauser said.
Gore brushed aside a question about whether there was any priority he felt so committed to that he would consider raising taxes to pay for it and instead seized on Bradley's comments. "Look, we have the largest surplus in the history of the United States," the vice president said. "This is not a time when we ought to be talking about tax increases."
Although Bradley was qualified in his comment about higher taxes, Gore argued that the mere mention of possible tax increases was a clear sign that Bradley now lacks confidence that he can pay for the plan out of projected surpluses and cost savings.
Then, attempting to draw a sharp distinction with his opponent on the issue, Gore noted: "I'm talking about tax cuts, Senator Bradley is talking about tax increases."
Gore stressed he both respects and likes Bradley--"a good man"--but at every opportunity chose the harshest possible interpretation of Bradley's proposals and their impact, arguing that in eliminating Medicaid he would leave poor people worse off and that he has no plan to preserve Medicare.
"I do not challenge his character in any way; he is an able person, he has a fine reputation and I like him as an individual--okay?" Gore said. "None of this is about him as a person, his character or anything like that."
Asked directly if he knew of anything in Bradley's personality or record to suggest the former New Jersey senator intended to jeopardize people on Medicaid or leave nursing homes unregulated, Gore said he could not comment on Bradley's intentions. "It's really all about the objective facts of his health care plan," Gore said.
Ordering an aide to fetch a copy of Bradley's plan, Gore then read from the section affecting long-term care. "If he does that, the national standards for nursing homes are GONE!" Gore said, his voice rising.
Then, using more hushed tones as he theatrically drew his hand across his throat, he added, "And to use a gesture banned in the NFL [National Football League], the nursing home standards are gone."
Gore said political, not policy, motivations dictated the details of Bradley's health care plan. Bradley, he said, "had a very strong tactical motivation to try to go as far to the left as he could" to win the nomination. "He tried and tried to come up with a proposal for universal health insurance and couldn't figure out how to do it," Gore added. "And so his advisers served up to him a plan that was deeply flawed, that he made a mistake in adopting."
Gore claimed that "every day a new problem with his plan has appeared" and criticized his rival for making adjustments on the fly.
But he conceded that he had sharply scaled back the size of his own proposed tax cut this fall when it was pointed out by others that his initial version threatened to eat up all of the anticipated budgetary surplus. Asked how big his tax cut is now, he offered an imprecise range of "between $150 and $350 billion."
Gore also conceded, as the Bradley campaign has asserted, that President Clinton's 1993 health care plan would have eliminated Medicaid. But he insisted that Medicaid recipients would have been better off under Clinton's plan, while Bradley would leave them worse off.
And he rejected suggestions that in picking apart Bradley's plan, he was doing the same thing Republicans had done to the Clinton plan. Like Clinton administration officials did then, Bradley has charged that Gore has distorted the details of his plan for political gain. "It's a completely different setting, a completely different context," Gore said.
When asked to name one or two top priorities that might compare with Bradley's "big ideas" approach, the vice president reverted to his standard campaign list. He said a Gore presidency would focus on keeping the economy strong, "revolutionary improvements" in public schools, step-by-step expansion of health coverage, protecting the environment and "completing the task of reinventing government."
At another point, Gore observed: "And I think that a huge, emerging issue in this campaign is who has the experience to keep our prosperity going and avoid the kind of mistakes--big mistakes--that have been made in the past that have put our prosperity at risk."
There he cited both Bradley's health care plan and the tax cut package offered last week by the Republican presidential front-runner, George W. Bush. Both, he said, "have proposed the complete elimination of the budget surplus in their first campaign pledges."
During the interview Gore apologized for a remark he made last week in which he suggested his congressional hearings had made Love Canal a national issue. Gore said his hearing, convened two months after the Niagara neighborhood was evacuated, was the first to highlight "a nationwide problem."
Nevertheless, "If I gave a misimpression to anyone who heard me, I apologize," he said Saturday night.
Although Gore said he felt increasingly optimistic about his prospects, he was cautious about predicting victory, saying he did not want to set off "my battery-powered hubris alarm." Still, he was frank in asserting his campaign adjustments have helped him respond to the Bradley threat.
Gore said the "turning point" came in late summer when he realized he needed "to stop thinking like a vice president running for president and start thinking and campaigning like a candidate for president who just happens to be vice president."
He acknowledged that while that may sound like a "subtle shift," it has "made all the difference."
CAPTION: Vice President Gore: "It's really all about the objective facts."