For all the debate between Bill Bradley and Vice President Gore over health insurance agendas and gun control proposals, Bradley's rallies and fund-raising receptions are being thronged by many supporters who don't know or care what he thinks about those or other big issues.
Roxanne Elwell, a 45-year-old real estate developer who greeted Bradley at the cinder-block Hudson Lions Hall this morning for a sendoff after his second debate with Gore, changed her voting registration from Republican last month so she can vote Bradley.
"Bill Bradley reminds me of people like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln," Elwell said. "They were tall, not great looking, not terrific speakers, but great men of extreme integrity."
Turning a platitude into a call to arms, Bradley's campaign is pushing moral rectitude--and the implicit contrast with President Clinton's indiscretions--as his prime selling point. The campaign's script for volunteers working on Bradley's telephone banks boils his message down to this: "He has the character, honesty and integrity to make a great president."
The brochures that are being hung on front doors throughout the Granite State say in big type, "Bill Bradley has the toughness and integrity to make a difference." A photograph from his basketball days is captioned, "Bringing Integrity to the Game."
Today, that theme got a powerful boost when Archibald Cox, 87, the former Watergate special prosecutor who once was known as the conscience of the nation, went before television cameras to declare that he was endorsing a presidential candidate for the first time in more than 20 years.
"Bill Bradley, very simply, is for real," said Cox, who lives in Maine. "He can do much more than anybody else to get away from the rotten Washington politics of the late 1990s."
Bradley replied: "I will say to you, sir, that you embody all that I aspire to in public life in terms of integrity."
Relying so heavily on intangibles carries considerable political risk.
Gore is a master of specifics, and Bradley's vagueness frustrates some audiences and leaves him vulnerable to attack. At Friday night's debate, Gore hammered Bradley for his lack of a detailed program to improve public education, which most polls rank as the issue that most concerns the public.
But the perception of Bradley as a man of character is a powerful one that has had decades to marinate in the public mind, as he grew from Princeton Renaissance man to Rhodes scholar to a New York Knicks basketball star who refused to make commercial endorsements to a senator who eventually quit because he believed politics was broken.
So it was a vague sense of Bradley's virtue, not his positions on issues, that drew a number of the roughly 300 well-wishers--many of whom were seeing Bradley for the first time--to the Lions Hall in Hudson, a quiet town of 22,000 where the century-old library is built of field stones and the Christmas creche is lodged in a whitewashed trolley stand that has been idle for seven decades.
As Bradley loped to the stage, Beth Campbell, 46, a state employees union member and chairman of the Democratic committee in Concord, the state capital, handed him a tin of raspberry-walnut shortbread bars.
"Bill Bradley is who he is, and he's not afraid to be boring, and he's not afraid to look a little frumpy sometimes," she said later. "Al Gore has gone through more reinventions than Madonna."
Her husband, Doug Campbell, 46, said his first thought when he heard Bradley's speech was "My God, wouldn't this be different!"
Bradley tells audience after audience that "the untapped potential of the presidency is to unlock in each of us our capacities as public citizens, to unlock in each of us our awareness of each other as human beings, and to deepen our conviction that through hard work, clarity of purpose and giving our neighbor the benefit of the doubt, that there's nothing in this country that we cannot achieve. I believe that."
Hardy Crawford, 35, who came from San Francisco to do volunteer work as Bradley's New Hampshire operation gears up for the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 1, said Bradley "conveys an inordinate sense of propriety, and I don't mean the moral rigor we associate with the right."
"It's righteousness, without vindictiveness," Crawford said.
Lined up nearby were Bill and Beverly Conboy and their three children, who attend Catholic school. Beverly Conboy, still smarting from the revelations leading to the impeachment of Clinton, said it's "hard to teach your children about the world when you can't even turn on the television."
Mary Kate Conboy, 11, said, "We need a president kids can look up to."
A butcher-paper banner on the wall said, "Santa Votes Bradley."