For the 30 years that Bill Bradley has been on the road in America, whether he was grabbing late-night coffee after a Knicks game or strolling the Atlantic City boardwalk as a senator, his signature greeting has always been, "Tell me your story."
Eager to attract voters to his high-minded but often abstract agenda, Bradley is updating his rap by having supporters tell their own stories for television cameras at campaign events.
Bradley and Vice President Gore, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, were in Iowa today, campaigning ahead of the caucuses later this month. But when Bradley went to a Des Moines community center to promote his plan for universal health insurance, much of the talking was done not by Bradley--but by Beverly Dowd and Jason Knight.
For just a few minutes, people dealing with horrendous hassles in their lives have the chance to be treated like Oprah Winfrey's TV guests. Bradley, playing the gracious host, started by asking Dowd if she wanted to sit or stand. She preferred to sit. Bradley, standing at the lectern after prying the microphone loose from its stand, said, "That's what I always prefer to do too, you know."
Dowd, 51, told the audience she had gone to pick up a prescription just before Christmas and was told her insurance "had been terminated."
"I said, 'Well, it can't be terminated. I've paid my premium--$263,' " she recalled. The next week she called the insurance company and learned that her former employer, an airline that has sought bankruptcy protection, had failed to pay its December premium.
"So I'm without insurance, and I wasn't even notified," she said. Now she faces bills from the pharmacy, the doctor and the chiropractor.
Bradley then turned to Knight, 29, who was sitting with his wife, Stephanie, and their 17-month-old daughter, Jenna. Knight, a painter for a construction company, had fallen off a ladder as he tried to reach the satellite dish at their home in Des Moines.
"How's that elbow, Jason?" Bradley asked.
"I don't have insurance," Knight began, "and I just fractured my elbow Monday and I'm paying for it all myself, and my daughter was born with spina bifida, and we're paying for all that, which exceeds $20,000. So now we're going to have to file bankruptcy, because we can't pay those bills."
"So basically you are in a position where unless there is some form of health insurance that's helped, paid for by the government, you're basically not going to be in a position where you can cover you daughter?" Bradley said. "How does that make you feel?"
"It's terrible," Knight said. "All children should have insurance."
And if Bill Bradley were president, they all would, he told the audience. Bradley's plan, which would cost $55 billion to $65 billion a year, guarantees health insurance for every child.
This afternoon, Bradley appeared on a call-in segment on WHO Channel 13, the NBC station in Des Moines, where he said he disagrees with the Clinton administration's decision that Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old refugee whose mother died trying to bring him to the United States, should return to Cuba.
"I thought that the boy should stay in the United States," Bradley said. "I think there will be litigation. I think the courts should review it. The ideal situation would be for the boy and his father to be in the United States."
Gore also campaigned in Iowa, holding meetings with health care and labor activists throughout the state. And in a new television ad released tonight, Gore for the first time directly criticized Bradley's health care plan, although without mentioning his name.
The spot describes Gore as "the only Democratic candidate who saves Medicare by setting aside 15 percent of the surplus to keep Medicare solvent. The only Democratic candidate who preserves Medicaid instead of replacing it with a $150-a-month voucher." Bradley has said he will expand Medicare and that his plan to replace Medicaid would not hurt the poor.
Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.