Bill Bradley began a bus tour of corn country today with a day-late explanation for a vote against flood relief that Vice President Gore used to flummox Bradley during a crucial debate this weekend.

At Saturday's debate, Gore dramatized his critique of Bradley's vote, cast in 1993 when he was a senator from New Jersey, by having a farmer who had been denied relief stand for the cameras.

Bradley, who has undergone a crash course in agriculture over the last year as he has solicited support for Iowa's Jan. 24 caucuses, on Saturday did not directly respond to Gore's challenge to explain the vote. He simply said, "This is not about the past. This is about the future."

With some of his own key supporters convinced that he had blundered badly in a state where a recent poll put him 21 percentage points behind Gore, Bradley spent all day today trying to recover, as he headed out on a journey that included stops at a country cafe and a livestock auction.

"I voted for flood relief, I voted for disaster assistance. I just voted against that particular amendment" cited by Gore in the debate, Bradley said on "Iowa Press," a public affairs program broadcast statewide today on Iowa Public Television. "I voted against it because it was relief not just for floods--not just for farmers--but it was relief generally." Bradley added that Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat from Nebraska, who is one of three senators who endorsed Bradley and is popular here, voted the same way.

Speaking in Indianola to a crowd of potential caucus-goers who had been plied with egg casserole and biscuits with sausage gravy, Bradley said he realized many small farmers had been shut out of the bounty of the 1990s.

"I've heard so many stories of broken dreams and broken lives on family farms in Iowa," Bradley told the crowd. "You cannot have an economy booming if you can't also give family farmers some sense of security."

At a sendoff this morning at his Polk County headquarters, located between a thrift shop and a bail bondsman with a sign saying "Jail Busters," Bradley accused the Clinton administration of neglecting agriculture.

"There is no credibility for Al Gore to come to Iowa and say, 'I'll help family farmers,' " Bradley said. "For the last seven years, there's been zero help for family farmers from this administration."

"I want to fight for them, and I'm going to fight for them if I'm president of the United States," Bradley said earlier on "Iowa Press," echoing Gore's campaign theme.

In a rolling news conference this afternoon aboard the press bus that was tailing his luxury coach, Bradley refined his line: "Where was Al Gore?" he asked. "The absence of leadership has consequences."

In response, Gore's Iowa communications director, Jud Lounsbury, said, "Since Bill Bradley has suddenly found an interest in agriculture, the Gore campaign would like to reextend our long-standing invitation to debate Al Gore on agriculture in Iowa."

Bradley said his first action on agriculture would be to "get a Justice Department that's going to go after the big packers that I think have been hurting family farmers by giving them disproportionately low prices." Next, he said, he would add more acres to the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which compensates farmers for setting aside land. And he said he would work to manage farmers' risk with payments to family farmers--not large corporate farms--when prices fall below a ratio of commodity prices to money paid out for such items as feed and fertilizer.

Earlier today, on "Fox News Sunday," Bradley denied he was referring to Gore in an ad that says, "People accuse me of offering big ideas that they say are risky. I say the real risk is not doing the things I've set out to do in this campaign. The real risk is doing nothing about gun control. The real risk is doing nothing about reducing child poverty."

Bradley said today, "To think that this ad is about Al Gore reminds me of that old Carly Simon song, 'You're so vain, you must think this song is about you.' I mean, the ad is not about Al Gore--the ad is about me, and about what I want to achieve for this country."

During the rolling news conference, Bradley refused to say how quickly he would push to allow gays to serve openly in the military, saying, "The method and timing will be mine."

"You lay out Strategy 1, Strategy 2, Strategy 3, Strategy 4--to what purpose? You know?" Bradley continued. "Either people believe you have a commitment to this, or they don't."

CAPTION: Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley shakes hands at Crouse Cafe in Indianola during the first day of a bus tour of Iowa, where he also responded to an issue raised Saturday by Vice President Gore.