The Democrats, running even in New Hampshire, look for each other's weak points.
By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 6, 2000
DURHAM, N.H. -- Bill Bradley, the former basketball player and current presidential candidate, often sums up the competitive nature of athletics and politics with a simple equation.
Take an elbow, give an elbow.
In the first debate of the new year, Bradley and Vice President Al Gore each threw plenty of elbows Wednesday night.
Bradley, who is even with or slightly ahead of Gore in the first-primary state, contended Gore is living in a "Washington bunker." He said the Clinton administration has been too consumed with controversies such as the campaign finance scandal and the president's impeachment to accomplish major goals.
"I think the major objective in the last several years in the White House has been political survival," Bradley said in linking Gore to Clinton's troubles.
Gore just as forcefully attacked Bradley's universal health care plan as reckless. He suggested the former New Jersey senator's expensive proposals would put Medicare and the healthy economy at risk.
"The country can ill afford big mistakes by a president who stumbles into something" that could be avoided with better experience and judgment, the vice president said.
The debate, the fourth between Bradley and Gore, was held at the University of New Hampshire. The two Democrats meet again Saturday in Iowa.
Iowa has its caucuses Jan. 24, and New Hampshire's primary is Feb. 1.
Meanwhile, the six Republican candidates are gearing up to debate three times over the next five days. They meet here tonight in a debate that will again be broadcast by C-SPAN and MSNBC, Friday in South Carolina and Monday in Michigan.
Before a blue background with white stars, Bradley and Gore aggressively challenged each other on issues ranging from health care to the Clinton administration's approach to Russia to the best approach to campaign finance reform and gun control.
Neither won any concessions from the other.
Questioned by moderator Peter Jennings of ABC, Bradley said he found it "particularly offensive" that Gore has previously suggested Bradley's health care plan would endanger black and Hispanic Americans by replacing Medicaid with a different system.
"I think Al misrepresented that," Bradley said, contending his plan would provide better coverage for the poor.
When Gore pressed with detailed questions about the health care plan, Bradley responded: "Let me explain to you, Al, how the private sector works."
But Gore said Bradley's plan would leave New Hampshire residents "high and dry."
"Sometimes Bill gets a little out of sorts when I talk about the substance of the policy," he said.
Bradley also was sharply critical of the Clinton administration's policies toward Russia. He said it did not push hard enough for Russia to reduce its nuclear weapons, sent international money to the country when it knew there was corruption and should have spoken more directly to the Russian people.
Gore argued Russia has seen improvements, including a freer press and elections.
The vice president, who has acknowledged some mistakes in campaign fundraising in 1996, pressed Bradley to concede he also has made errors. He asked Bradley whether his votes for President Ronald Reagan's 1981 budget cuts, against the use of ground troops in the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and against welfare reform in 1996 were mistakes.
"I think all three were mistakes," Gore said.
Bradley defended the votes.
"If you want me to admit to a mistake to pass this litmus test," Bradley replied after Jennings pressed him about what mistakes presidents can make, "I'll admit to a mistake. I voted against (Federal Reserve Chairman) Alan Greenspan the first time."
The Democrats also tangled over gun control. Bradley asked Gore why he would not embrace the licensing and registration of all handguns, one of Bradley's top priorities. Gore, who supports banning cheap handguns, said Bradley was being unrealistic.
There were a couple of light moments.
Gore renewed his invitation to Bradley that they jointly agree to stop airing campaign ads. If Bradley is concerned it would put him at a disadvantage nationally because he is not as well known, Gore said, he would be willing to do it just in New Hampshire, where he is the "underdog."
"Al, your "underdog' pitch brings tears to my eyes," Bradley responded.
"I hope my upset victory brings tears to your eyes," Gore shot back.