As Bill Bradley left after speaking at the Best Western here this morning, Peter Harman, the executive chef and author of the spiral-bound "Manly Art of Macho Cookery," whispered man-to-man, "If you don't get it this time, there's four years from now."

Bradley smiled wanly and kept walking. He couldn't argue. For the first time in his charmed 56 years, Bill Bradley, the basketball star who always knew where he was, the politician with the seemingly infallible inner voice, seems to have lost his game plan.

Today, he was preoccupied with reassuring Iowa caucus voters that his ticker is fine--that although he has had four incidents of heart arrhythmia in the past month, the condition is a common nuisance that would not inhibit him in the Oval Office.

A front-page headline in the local paper, The Hawk Eye, said, "Bradley health problems at issue." That made Jerry Rigdon, a window-cleaning service owner who had been an unabashed Bradley fan, reconsider. "Who he selects as a running mate would be an important factor for me," Rigdon said.

But the heart episodes, which Bradley's campaign kept secret until a reporter asked about them Thursday, are only the latest of the seemingly daily indignities and distractions--some of them self-inflicted--that have beset Bradley as he heads toward the Iowa caucuses Monday and the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary.

He finds himself succumbing to campaign stagecraft that he has long disdained.

He has admitted that negative advertising, which he resisted and which he contended is not what voters want, has been effective in building support for Vice President Gore, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

He lauds tax subsidies for producers of ethanol--a gasoline additive made from corn, the leading crop in Iowa--after spending 12 years as a senator from New Jersey fighting for fewer tax breaks and lower rates for everyone.

He has given up the high ground he tried to stake out by appealing to what he called voters' "better angels," and has flailed away at Gore for a 15-year-old vote, even as he admitted that they now agree on the issue. Last week, Bradley accused Gore of popularizing the case of Willie Horton, which has become synonymous with racist politics, even though Gore had referred to the parole issue in a 1988 debate without mentioning Horton's name.

Suddenly, to the surprise of friends and supporters, the "different kind of campaign" that Bradley promised looks typical of the sort many voters say they despise. And political authorities said that even if Bradley goes on to a big upset, he will never be able to say he won on the terms and standards he set for himself.

Bradley's straits are a remarkable reversal for the sure-footed scholar-athlete who has been called "Mr. President" by teammates since high school, and who was immortalized in a 1965 New Yorker profile that took its title from Bradley's observation as author John McPhee watched him shoot baskets at Princeton.

"When you have played basketball for a while, you don't need to look at the basket when you are in close like this," Bradley said. "You develop a sense of where you are."

That launched a mythology that followed Bradley to Oxford University, the New York Knicks and the U.S. Senate, where he began taking polls for a possible presidential race back in 1988. But year after year he resisted the entreaties of his supporters, saying only that the time was not right.

With President Clinton's impeachment, Bradley believed his time had come. He stood for virtuous, low-decibel politics that he believed was what voters craved after the raucous partisanship of the 1990s.

But after a surprisingly fast start to what initially had been seen as a quixotic contest (once again, Bradley's inner voice had scooped the pundits), he finds himself repeatedly outmaneuvered by Gore, a man who--if Bradley's tone and posture in debates is a reliable gauge--he scorns. In the political equivalent of having his lunch money stolen, Gore has even ripped off Bradley's slogan. "It Can Happen," was the Nike-esque tag line for Bradley's ads.

This week, Gore's bus bears the banner, "It WILL Happen."

Evidence keeps cropping up on the campaign trail that Bradley is yielding to political imperatives that he had considered beneath him. Just the other day in Salem, N.H., Bradley was surrounded by kindergartners and cameras, and he bent down awkwardly to slap skin with a few of the tots. Next to him was a knee-high chair their teacher had been using. "I would sit down on this chair," Bradley said to no one in particular, "but it might be too staged."

Seconds passed. He sat in the chair.

During a recent news conference, Bradley seemed wistful with a dash of ironic humor. He seemed almost proud of the criticism of his signature proposal--a plan to provide health insurance for all children and most working adults, which he estimates would cost $55 billion to $65 billion a year. Gore, and even some of Bradley's advisers, have argued that is unaffordable.

"I've tried to be bold in this campaign on this issue, recognizing that it's a risk to be bold and specific," Bradley said. "It's not unlike throwing a piece of raw meat into a cage of wolves to be picked apart. But if you know why you're doing this, you go straight ahead."

Asked about polls of female voters, which show Gore far ahead, Bradley at first said, "I don't really look at all these numbers." Then he listed the plans he has that would benefit women, including tax credits for child care. "My guess is that women don't yet know what I've done, either as a senator or what I will do as president, and it's a question of communicating to them," Bradley said.

Many students of Bradley believe that if the critical early contests prove to be disappointing, he is likely to fight on for many weeks, a luxury provided by his campaign's well-stocked bank account. Bradley provided ammunition for that view during an appearance before AmeriCorps volunteers in Boston, where he was asked the most important of the 10 virtues he discussed in his 1998 book, "Values of the Game."

He riffed on several of his favorites and then finally picked one: resilience.