Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley delivered his most pointed critique of Vice President Gore here today, accusing his rival of "nibbling around the edges" on health care, turning his back on working families and recognizing the problems of farmers "at the last minute."
Setting the tone for the final 10 days of campaigning before the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses, Bradley laid out what he called "an ambitious agenda" for alleviating the economic insecurities of many working families that he said was in stark contrast to the vice president's agenda.
Before an audience of high school students, Bradley pledged that as president he would "engage the idealism of the American people" to provide universal health care, the registration and licensing of all handguns, lifetime learning, a reduction in child poverty and campaign finance reform.
Aiming his appeal directly at the Democratic activists who attend the precinct caucuses here in Iowa, Bradley likened his approach to that of two expansive Democratic presidents of previous generations, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who gave the country Social Security, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Medicare program into law.
"I want to contrast that with what Al Gore is saying," said Bradley, who only rarely mentions his opponent by name. "Registration and licensing of handguns? Too hard to do, he says. Universal access to affordable quality health insurance for all America and helping middle-class Americans, those who work hard and play by the rules? Yeah, but not now and I'm not putting any money in for how we'll ever get there."
Bradley went on to charge that Gore has offered "no specific goal" for reducing child poverty, has proposed "a long laundry list" of education reforms that ignore fundamental issues, and offers "no help" to working families.
"We are a great country, at the time of our greatest prosperity," Bradley said. "Now is not the time to settle for doing virtually nothing for family farmers. . . . Now is not the time to say to people, 'Well, we'll give you a little health care now but we're not going to do the big one.' Now is not the time to turn our backs on working families out there in this country. Now is not the time to [say] 'Oh, forget about affirmative action,' because in reality there's still a problem."
Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser called the speech "the most emphatic and thorough" critique of Gore's agenda by the former New Jersey senator. Hauser said Bradley hoped "to cement the core differences" with Gore and to highlight Bradley's "concerns about economic security" and "commitment to solving them."
Today's speech coincided with the release of a television commercial that will air in New Hampshire in which Bradley lays out that agenda and concludes by saying, "This campaign is being run under the radical premise that you can go out and tell people what you believe, and win."
Bradley has spent much of the week on the defensive, and his appearance at Johnston High School represented an effort to turn the tables on the vice president. Alluding to Gore, Bradley remarked that "some people say we cannot do big things" and went on to appeal for support "if you agree with me that we have an opportunity to do big and bold things at this time of unprecedented prosperity."
For weeks, Gore has waged a daily assault on Bradley's record, agenda and leadership style. In a telephone call with Iowa reporters Tuesday, he accused Bradley of "desperate negative campaigning." One of Gore's latest ads argues Bradley would replace Medicaid with "vouchers," an allegation that former labor secretary Robert B. Reich has called "scare-mongering."
But today in Concord, N.H., surrounded by senior citizens and with the cameras rolling, Gore made clear he had no desire to say anything untoward about his rival. "I want to compliment him on the fine race he has been running," Gore said.
When told of Bradley's detailed critique, the vice president twice refused to engage on the substance of the debate between the two men. "Well the only thing I can figure is he didn't get the word on the nice things I said about him here today," Gore said during a brief news conference.
At the meeting with retirees, Gore put to use one weapon in his arsenal no other candidate in the race can match: he announced that the administration was releasing $70 million for enforcement of nursing home standards and an additional $2.7 billion over five years for higher Medicare nursing home reimbursements.
At today's news conference, the first in a week, Gore also bragged that he had won the first newspaper endorsement of the Democratic race--from the Portsmouth Herald.
Connolly reported from Concord, N.H.