Were there a subtitle to the second debate in three days between the two Democratic candidates for president, it might be called "the frustrations of Al Gore."
Ever since former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley caught the vice president in the polls in New Hampshire, Gore has been looking for a way to knock his rival off course, to cast him as just another traditional politician rather than a reformer.
Yesterday he tried again. Halfway through their joint appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press," Gore offered Bradley a deal. Gore said he would forgo all television and radio commercials for the duration of the nomination battle and meet Bradley in debates twice a week, if Bradley would agree to do the same.
The idea may be appealing to Americans saturated by negative television commercials. But the former New York Knicks star refused to bite, brushing aside the offer as if he were elbowing an NBA rookie out of the way on a basketball court.
Dismissing Gore's overture as a "ploy" and "a ridiculous proposal" not worthy of discussion, he told the vice president, "It sounds like you're having trouble raising money."
All year, Bradley has marched to his own rhythm, seemingly confident that he has captured the mood of the voters for a different kind of politics.
When reporters pressed him early on to point out his differences with Gore, he resisted. When Bradley was criticized for promising big ideas but not offering details, he said he would do so in due time. When Gore demanded weekly debates, something underdogs normally jump at, he told the vice president to wait.
Throughout the fall, Gore has tried repeatedly to force Bradley to wage their nomination battle on the vice president's terms. At a Democratic dinner in Iowa in October, Gore tauntingly challenged Bradley to a debate a week. Bradley sat and smiled in reply. Gore has tried to paint Bradley as insincere, as a disloyal Democrat who abandoned his party at crucial moments. Bradley has largely held his ground.
Gore prefers the cut-and-thrust of traditional politics and has often defined himself by criticizing his opponents. It was Gore, after all, who in 1988 introduced Willie Horton into the presidential campaign.
As the Democratic race has grown more competitive, Gore repeatedly has sought to engage Bradley on his own terms. He has succeeded in at least one area. His sharp criticisms of the cost and coverage of Bradley's health care plan have forced the former New Jersey senator to defend the plan, and the attacks may have helped Gore halt his slide in New Hampshire.
But in other ways, the Democratic fight continues to be fought as much on Bradley's terms as on Gore's. And again yesterday, Bradley made clear that he would not let Gore coerce him into a fundamentally different style of campaigning.
"You know something?" he said to Gore. "For 10 months . . . you ignored me, you pretended I didn't exist. Suddenly I started to do better and you want to debate every day. It's ridiculous. We're having debates."
Gore has tried different ways of shifting the fight his way. If Bradley has claimed the advantage on campaign finance reform, Gore has tried to show that he has a far longer record of support for reform measures than Bradley. If Bradley has claimed to be the candidate of big ideas because of health care, Gore has sought to diminish Bradley by saying his rival's education ideas are nothing more than "nibbling around the edges."
Gore's offer to Bradley to stop television advertising was also an effort to put Bradley on the defensive in an area where the underdog has held the advantage. With Bradley running as the atypical politician, Gore hoped to show that he is the candidate willing to break with the traditional politics of 30-second attack ads to show voters that he is no less pure than his rival.
Bradley's response suggested he thinks voters will not accept the vice president's characterizations.
All year Gore's supporters believed that their candidate was the master of debates. Whatever other shortcomings he might have as a candidate, Gore partisans argued, the vice president was a fierce and usually successful debater. After all, he demolished Ross Perot in a debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and devastated Republican Jack Kemp in the 1996 vice presidential debate. But Bradley has proven to be a more worthy rival in debate than either Perot or Kemp. Unlike Perot, Bradley has been unflappable. Unlike Kemp, Bradley has come prepared--and in encounters yesterday and Friday ready to engage when necessary.
But in two debates this weekend, the two candidates have parried one another on health care and education and campaign finance without either emerging as a clear winner. Gore has scored some points, but Bradley has done the same. Neither appears likely to gain a clear advantage in these forums. That leaves the Democratic fight as much or more on Bradley's terms as it does on Gore's, a continuing source of frustration to the vice president.