Bill Bradley, in his most direct attack on the ethics of Vice President Gore, said tonight the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising scandal was "disgraceful" and if it was not dealt with now, Republicans would win back the White House in November.
Saying the campaign finance controversy was "most embarrassing for Democrats," Bradley told an audience of several hundred Democrats here: "If we don't get our house in order, if we don't clean our house, the Republicans will clean it for us in the fall, and that would be a terrible direction for this country."
Some in an audience dominated by Gore supporters applauded the former New Jersey senator's new line of attack, although others sat quietly. Bradley's criticism represented an effort to shift the momentum his way three days before Tuesday's crucial primary.
It was the second assault of the day by the candidate who says he is running for president on the "radical premise you can go out and tell people what you believe and win."
Earlier today he warned voters to carefully parse statements by Gore that may seem to promise--or scare--more than they really do.
"When you listen to Al Gore speak, you have to listen very carefully, because old politics uses words in a very tricky manner," he said at a senior citizens center this morning. "You have to look at every word and every clause."
Like Bradley, his newest supporter echoed the theme of character into this Democratic primary fight. Former Connecticut governor Lowell P. Weicker, an independent, sought to tie Gore to the Clinton administration's darker hours by pointing out that he had spent the past five years trying to teach idealistic college students. "Now tell me what kind of a job I had teaching that version of integrity and honor while at the same time the Clinton-Gore administration was doing its thing?" he asked.
In his 30-minute speech preceding Bradley at the same Democratic fund-raising dinner, Gore made only an indirect reference to his primary opponent, concentrating instead on the challenge of retaining the White House.
"Make no mistake about the passion that will be needed for the fight that lies ahead," he roared from behind the lectern. "Make no underestimate of the forces of resistance that are out there hungry to take back the White House and bend policies to the wishes of their special-interest group friends."
As polls here have suggested Gore pulling away from Bradley in recent days, the former basketball star has been forced to shift into a more aggressive posture.
At a town hall meeting in Newport earlier, Bradley said Gore was guilty of "bait and switch" on gun control and health insurance, by making his proposals sound more sweeping than they really are.
"He says, "I'm for licensing of all new handguns in America,' " Bradley said, speaking quickly and sliding over each word. "If you would read it, it would say, "I'm for licensing of all NEW handguns in America'--not all handguns."
Bradley has proposed requiring registration of all handguns, while Gore would require a license for the purchase of new handguns.
In several appearances Bradley took a swipe at President Clinton's final State of the Union address. He called Clinton "a virtuoso" who had "laid out a number of positive plans," but said the country needs a president who can reach across partisan lines to get legislation passed.
"Much of what he laid out will only be accomplished if we get beyond politics as usual--the old politics--to something that is new, something that's based upon belief and conviction and not on divisiveness and destruction," Bradley said. "And that's where our politics is today."
At the senior citizens center, in Lebanon, Bradley said, "If I were president of the United States, I believe I could reach out and create that kind of climate that would diminish the kind of virulent partisanship that we've seen in Washington."
Even as the two camps continued to spar over which Democrat is the nastiest, Gore began to shift to a more upbeat message aimed at bringing out his loyal supporters Tuesday. "I'm going to emphasize the positive," he said today when asked about Bradley's latest critique.
"I don't think the voters want to hear negative attacks," he said at another point. "They want to hear what we're going to do for the country."
Instead, Gore tried to keep the focus on the economic feats of the Clinton administration. Gore's campaign flew former treasury secretary Robert Rubin up to the Seacoast to vouch for the vice president's financial bona fides.
"He is sensible, practical and willing to make the tough decisions on the economic issues that our country has faced," said Rubin. "Support for Al Gore is support for a sound economy in the years and decades ahead."
Both Gore and Gov. Jeanne Shaheen reminded workers at an energy firm in Portsmouth that seven years ago, New Hampshire was in financial straits. "Eight years ago, this entire state was feeling devastated and abandoned," Gore said in a midday stop at the PowerWorks company.
Also today, the Gore campaign released a new 30-minute "docudrama" that will air on New Hampshire television Saturday night. The video is a montage of the vice president's 30-second spots and footage from recent rallies. "There are only a couple days left," Gore says into the camera, referring to Tuesday's primary.
Just in case Gore's message is successful, Bradley aides made an effort today to show that his campaign will continue to the big primaries in March. They released a schedule showing that Bradley plans to go to Connecticut and Brooklyn the next day, then on to California, Maryland and Florida.
Gore, ever eager to push harder than the competition, will not wait until the morning after New Hampshire to start the next phase of his White House quest. He plans to fly to New York Tuesday night for a late-night event.
The Bradley campaign said that when federal matching funds are included, Bradley should have nearly $20 million to spend after Feb. 1. In federal reports to be filed Monday, Bradley says he raised $8.4 million in the last quarter of 1999, for a total of $27 million, and has about $8.3 million in cash on hand.
Also today, Bradley disclosed that he had another brief episode of his heart arrhythmia several days ago, his fifth in the past month, but didn't require a doctor's attention.
CAPTION: Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley talks to New Hampshire residents at a senior citizens center in Lebanon.