Bill Bradley is accusing Vice President Gore of giving Republicans the idea of making an issue of Willie Horton, the black murderer who became synonymous with racist politics after his case was used in an ad in the 1988 presidential campaign.
Bradley discussed Horton on Wednesday night in an interview with the Boston Herald, which published the story today under the headline "Bradley: Willie Horton issue shows Gore as race-baiter." The Herald sells 15,000 copies a day in New Hampshire, which holds its presidential primary Feb. 1.
The statement was surprising because a large part of Bradley's appeal has been the nobility he promised to bring to politics. At a rally as he arrived here Wednesday, he told supporters, some of whom leapt up and hugged him, "Too much of politics today is focused on the mechanics of winning--you know, fund-raising, polling and spinning--and not enough on service. . . . We want to restore trust in the political process."
Horton had been convicted of murder in Massachusetts and then raped a woman while on weekend furlough, leading to accusations that Gov. Michael S. Dukakis was soft on crime. Gore, who competed for the Democratic nomination in 1988, raised the issue against Dukakis before the New York primary; supporters of Vice President George Bush used the case in an infamous ad during the general election.
"Gore introduced him into the lexicon," the Herald quoted Bradley as saying. "It proved in the course of the campaign to essentially be a poster child for racial insensitivity."
The Gore campaign responded by giving reporters Dukakis's phone number. Dukakis, who plans to campaign for Gore in Iowa before the caucuses on Jan. 24, said he likes Bradley and is surprised by his statement. "It's just nonsense," Dukakis said. "The Willie Horton case was hardly a secret in Massachusetts and New England." Dukakis acknowledged that Gore brought up the issue in a debate but added, "He did nothing like Bush did, which was so offensive. I think this is really unfair."
Bradley's campaign responded by giving out the phone number of Susan Estrich, who was Dukakis's campaign manager in 1988. She said the campaign was surprised that Gore had raised the issue. "We knew it had racial overtones," she said.
Bradley's communications director, Anita Dunn, said the former New Jersey senator "would not have used this issue, and Al Gore did." The campaign also posted a transcript of Bradley's exchange with the Herald reporter on its Web site so users could see that he was responding to a series of leading questions from the newspaper and did not bring up the subject.
Bradley's comments on Horton came one day after he used a news conference in Iowa to accuse Gore of coddling tobacco companies, on the basis of a 15-year-old vote.
A Quinnipiac College poll released today showed Bradley opening a 10-point lead over Gore among likely voters in the New Hampshire primary. But in Iowa he appears to be struggling: A poll by the Des Moines Register last week suggested he had made no progress since September, the last time the newspaper polled.
Although Bradley has faced an unusual spate of negative news coverage this week, campaign officials said it is not affecting organizing efforts or the enthusiasm of supporters.
Today, Bradley hopes to change the subject with a speech in Johnston, Iowa, designed to set the stage for the final days before the caucuses. He plans to remind voters of the farmers and others who were left out of the economic boom of the 1990s and to make what an adviser described as "a very strong call for the need to change things."