Vice President Gore made a surprise challenge to rival Bill Bradley in yesterday's Democratic presidential debate. Give up campaign commercials, Gore said, and he would do the same.

Bradley, dismissing the offer as "ridiculous," said the "ploy" was emblematic of Gore's negative, old-style Washington politics.

With the men sitting elbow-to-elbow on NBC's "Meet the Press," Gore stood by his assertion during last year's impeachment crisis that history would regard President Clinton as one of the greatest presidents. But asked if he put Clinton "in the same company as Washington and Lincoln," Gore said, "No, of course not."

He blanched when asked whether taxpayers should pay $5 million in legal bills for the president and first lady but concluded that while reimbursement would be legal, he nevertheless would not make such a request.

Gore, who never mentioned Clinton in Friday's debate, acknowledged that he and the president made mistakes in the 1996 fund-raising controversy. He said such tactics were "pushing the limits," but added, "All this was reviewed, and no charges were brought."

Bradley, in remarks that may alienate some Democratic Party regulars, said he would consider supporting experiments with vouchers for private schools and left open the possibility of keeping Medicare and Social Security solvent by raising taxes, cutting benefits or providing a stingier cost-of-living increase.

Locked in a fierce competition for the Democratic nomination, the two men resumed their feud over who has the best plans for expanding health care and improving America's schools. But yesterday it was campaign finance reform that provided the most animated--even hostile--exchanges.

The former New Jersey senator brushed off Gore's campaign moratorium as a sign of desperation. "For 10 months that I was running for president, you ignored me, pretended I didn't exist," Bradley said. "Suddenly I started to do better, and you want to debate every day. It's ridiculous."

Gore, meanwhile, challenged Bradley's self-appointed status as the real reformer in the race.

"Bill went 17 years in the United States Senate before he even sponsored a campaign finance reform bill," Gore said. "Only after announcing his retirement and heading out to run for president did he sponsor a bill on this issue."

Viewers could hear Gore sighing theatrically off-camera during several of Bradley's answers, prompting the Bradley camp to issue an "official deep-sigh count" of seven.

A full year after Clinton was impeached, Gore struggled to address a potential request by the Clintons to have taxpayers pick up their legal bills.

At first, Clinton's No. 2 said he had "no idea," but elaborated: "Well, look, they've denied that they're even asking. . . . Under the law they have the right to do it. Would I do it in that position? No, I would not."

Bradley quickly rejected the notion.

"While I don't think that what the president did reached the level of impeachment . . . any time the president lies to the people, he squanders the people's trust and undermines his own authority," he said. "I don't think that the taxpayers should pay for the consequences of that act."

Neither Democrat is known for his charisma, but the two scrapped testily as they argued about campaign finance. Bradley, who is running as an outsider and just last week held an unprecedented cross-party summit with Republican Sen. John McCain, appeared to defend politics as usual.

Gore said that if Bradley would agree, he would "stop running all television and radio commercials until this nomination is decided."

"What about it?" Gore demanded.

"It sounds to me like you're having trouble raising money," Bradley replied.

In fact, Gore's problem is with spending, not collecting. Because Gore spent so heavily last spring and summer, his campaign is in danger of running out of money long before the Democratic nominee would collect $60 million in federal funds for the general election, a potential crisis that has led the vice president to rely heavily on taxpayer-paid travel next spring.

Bradley called the advertising moratorium "a ridiculous proposal," but Gore plunged ahead, suggesting they "have two debates every single week and get rid of all of the television and radio commercials." Then he stuck out his hand, waiting for Bradley to shake.

"Al, that's good. I like that hand," Bradley said. "But the answer is no.

"The point is, Al, and I don't know if you get this, but a political campaign is not just a performance for people," Bradley said. "It is, rather, a dialogue."

When Bradley said he wants to use ads to explain "what I believe and where I want to take the country," Gore asked with mock incredulity, "In 30-second commercials?"

"That's not so difficult to do if you know what you believe," Bradley said.

Although Gore has hired some top television producers, yesterday he decried commercials as "part of what's wrong with American politics. You have these little attack ads, you have these little fuzzy images." Gore's proposition was a reprise of a tactic used by Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) in his campaign last year. Edwards and Gore share several consultants, including media adviser Robert Shrum and pollster Harrison Hickman.

When the debate turned to the long-term health of Social Security and Medicare, the two showed rhetorical, if not substantive, differences. Moderator Tim Russert quoted a government report indicating that if no changes were made to Social Security before 2035, benefits might have to be cut by one-third or taxes raised by as much as $9,000 per family.

Bradley said, "No one is going to let Medicare or Social Security go bankrupt." But when Russert asked what solutions he would consider, Bradley said, "Well, all of the things that you mentioned." But he added that he opposes any increase in the retirement age.

But Gore, in a familiar refrain, charged: "Senator Bradley voted in the Senate to consider a measure that would raise the retirement age for both Social Security and Medicare to 70. I'm glad that he's backed off that now."

Yet Gore echoed Bradley's view on long-range solutions. "If there's a national crisis, then all bets are off," he said.

The most significant policy difference separating the two centered on proposals to provide vouchers to help parents pay for private schools. Bradley, who voted in the Senate for voucher experiments, said he does "not believe that vouchers are the answers to the problems of public education."

But he added, "If those experiments demonstrated that the quality of public education was improved because of the competition, I think that it would be very difficult to turn your back on that evidence."

Gore, who has been endorsed by the major teachers' unions, remained steadfastly opposed, saying: "It means that it drains money away from public schools."

The two, calling each other "Al" and "Bill," have become testier with each of their three debates. Yesterday, Bradley chided Gore repeatedly and criticized the administration's inaction on campaign finance reform, scoffing: "I don't know if you were in the loop or not."

Gore, itching to interrupt, patted Bradley's hand while he was rejecting the ad challenge and chuckled as Bradley explained his stand on fixing Medicare. While Bradley offers himself as the candidate of big ideas, Gore ridiculed him for "little, nibble-around-the-edges proposals."

To hear the two candidates tell it, however, the next few months of campaigning will be gentlemanly.

"I will never run a personal negative attack against you," Gore told his opponent.

"No attack ads?" Bradley asked.

Said Gore: "Absolutely."

CAPTION: Bill Bradley, left, and Vice President Gore debate on NBC's "Meet the Press."