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Bradley hopes not to be left out in Iowa's cold

Frigid temperatures aren't the only problems the Democratic underdog's campaign has faced in the week leading up to Monday's caucuses.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2000


DES MOINES, Iowa -- Bill Bradley is off his game.

The wind chill is below zero. His 8 a.m. talk to the Iowa Association of Community Providers in Clive has been canceled. His 10 a.m. speech to AARP members at a 1940s dance hall in West Des Moines started late, and the audience of 100 or so senior citizens was expected to be much larger.

Bradley's receding hair needs a brush. His timing on a couple of his standard laugh lines is slightly off. He's not terrible. He just often performs better.

Afterward, reporters ask whether he is disrespectful to voters when he says "Iowa is a state that rewards entrenched power" in explaining why Vice President Al Gore is expected to easily defeat him in Monday night's caucuses.

"The process itself," Bradley answers before heading off on a final bus tour that ends today, "I respect."

The caucus process in Iowa is not kind to an insurgent candidate running against an incumbent vice president.

Bradley has spent a bit more than Gore on TV advertising here, $1.5-million. He has hired roughly the same number of staffers, more than five dozen. He has campaigned more days in the state.

But Gore has a bigger, time-tested machine. It is powered by the influence of the administration, Democratic politicians and activists, experienced labor organizers and teacher unions.

"Our people are doing this many times for the first time," said Pete D'Alessandro, Bradley's Iowa political director, "and they are going against the New York Yankees."

Day by day, through this final week, Bradley's campaign operation here showed the strains of the underdog -- and the energy of a politician's friends and supporters struggling to make headway across 56,000 square miles of small towns and frozen Midwest farmland.

Sunday afternoon: Waterloo

The smell of baking bread from the nearby Wonder Bread factory perfumes the late afternoon air outside the Waterloo Center for the Arts.

Inside, Bradley talks about race relations to a predominantly black audience. He recalls how his American Legion baseball team refused to eat in restaurants that would not serve black teammates. He promotes his plans to provide health coverage for the uninsured and to tighten gun controls.

As a professional basketball player, Bradley excelled in a sport now dominated by African-Americans. Racial issues have been one of his priorities as a U.S. senator and as a candidate for president.

Yet Gore does better with black voters.

David Goodson, a 41-year-old director of faith-based community programs in Waterloo, walked in as an undecided voter. He left supporting Bradley and planning to attend a caucus.

"I think African-Americans are becoming more impressed the more they find out about him," said Goodson, who is black. "Many of us, even though he played basketball, didn't know him as a politician."

Monday morning: Drake University

Bradley brings along a friend to a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the compact campus just west of downtown Des Moines. He stands out in a racially mixed crowd because of height.

Former Boston Celtics star Bill Russell.

In this young audience, few recognize Russell's name or appreciate the magnitude of winning 11 championships in 13 years. Russell talks about the similarities between Bradley's New York Knicks teams in the '70s and his campaign.

"The sum was greater than the parts, and I think that's what Bill envisions for the country as president," Russell said. "That we can take all of this diversity and have a tremendous impact."

Bradley, who used to avoid talking about basketball, now plays his connection to the game to the hilt.

His new caucus Web site, aimed at explaining to undecided or new voters how a caucus works, includes a message from Los Angeles Lakers coach and former teammate Phil Jackson. Campaign letters were sent weeks ago to every basketball coach and athletic director in Iowa.

A new television ad features Russell urging voters to support Bradley on Monday night.

"Get yourself off the couch and come out to the caucus -- I'll be watching for you," Russell says with a mock snarl before laughing.

The old basketball legend is Bradley's guest at the final debate Monday night. Gore's guests include three Cabinet secretaries.

Monday afternoon: Bradley state headquarters

Like most campaign headquarters, this one would not appeal to Martha Stewart.

Sandwiched between a mobile phone store and a pizza parlor west of downtown Des Moines, it is crammed with campaign fliers, computers, Iowa maps and dirty pink portable walls. Tacked to one wall is a Time magazine cover from October featuring Bradley: "The man who could beat Gore."

Bradley still has a shot. Just probably not in Iowa.

"Two months, two days and 14 hours -- but I love Iowa," joked Jim Farrell about his time here. Farrell is the state campaign spokesman and is on loan from the Washington office of Sen. Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat. "Our job is to beat expectations here in order to get Sen. Bradley to New Hampshire in good shape."

It is a state where organization counts more than television advertisements.

There are more than 2,100 precincts in Iowa. Bradley has precinct leaders in more than 1,000 of them and was looking for more. The precinct leaders then had to be trained and sent out to recruit neighbors to go to Monday night's caucus and vote for Bradley.

One of the toughest tasks: explaining to precinct leaders and to Iowans how a caucus works.

The caucuses in living rooms, churches and town halls are attended primarily by party activists. The Democratic and Republican caucuses are expected to draw just 100,000 voters each in a state with nearly 1.8-million voters.

Democratic activists are more likely to support Gore, who has been working them since he ran for president in 1988. That has forced Bradley to cast a wider net for potential supporters who are unfamiliar with the process.

One strategy has been to go after younger voters who tend not to vote. Bradley has visited several high schools, urging 18-year-olds to get involved.

Two colorful posters, with artwork in the free-flowing style of '60s rock concert announcements, hang in the campaign office.

"Remember your favorite teacher in high school?" asks one. "He's running for president."

"Academic scholar -- basketball star -- presidential candidate," says the other. "Basically the guy you hated in high school."

Wednesday morning: Polk Co. headquarters

Bradley has flown to New Hampshire for the day, but his campaign in Iowa plows forward despite the first snowfall of the year.

Ted Pleasance cannot vote for president. He had never been to Iowa. He had not seen Bradley in about 35 years.

But as the snow fell outside the storefront local headquarters in downtown Des Moines, the 60-year-old London resident was dialing the phone, cheerfully searching for caucusgoers for his former classmate at Oxford.

Pleasance dialed a number from a printout listing potential supporters. Kathryn was thought to be for Bradley, but it was unclear whether she planned on attending Monday's caucus.

No answer from Kathryn.

Pleasance dialed another number.

An answering machine picked up.

"People are out working, and the weather and everything," Pleasance said in a thick English accent. "We are not always getting the response I would hope for. But it is a question of trying and giving it the best shot."

Gore has volunteers working for him as well. But Bradley is even more reliant on his volunteer army, which has members from 42 states. He doesn't have the United Auto Workers or the National Education Association working on his behalf.

More than 200,000 voters have been telephoned by the Bradley campaign. About 12,000 Iowans have been sent postcard kits and are being asked to send cards to six friends. There are an estimated 400 volunteers in the state working for Bradley.

While Pleasance made telephone calls in one corner, five volunteers dubbed "Team Princeton" received instructions in another. Jenny Crumiller, a 40-year-old homemaker from Princeton, N.J., left her 12- and 16-year-old sons at home to work on her first presidential campaign.

"As soon as they put out on the Internet site they needed help," she said, "we jumped at the chance."

Walter Bliss, a 55-year-old lawyer and part of the group, was a year behind Bradley at Princeton.

He said he had been waiting for Bradley to run.

"We have been waiting for this for 35 years," he said before spending several hours on snow-covered sidewalks, sticking Bradley packets on front doors.

Thursday morning: Val Air Ballroom

Old black-and-white promotional photos of groups such as the Drifters and the Crickets line the wall, and a large mirror ball hangs above the dance floor now lined with folding chairs.

Mavis Warne, 73, waited for the late-arriving Bradley at the AARP event in her bright red snow boots. She said she just might go to a caucus Monday night.

"I've never done that," Warne said, adding that she usually makes up her mind about politicians just before an election.

She is concerned about not having coverage for prescription drugs "even though I don't have an acorn of pain." She knew Bradley and Gore both have plans to expand health coverage and offer seniors a prescription drug benefit. She just couldn't understand what they have been arguing about.

"They almost echo each other," Warne said.

Older voters are expected to be the key to deciding the caucuses. AARP estimates over half of caucusgoers will be over 50 years old. A third could be over 65 years old.

Unlike Warne, many of those older voters are not expected to abandon an establishment candidate like Gore.

Bradley does not give one of his best performances in the ballroom. He sounds almost distracted, misfiring lines like a car whose engine hasn't warmed up in cold weather.

That changes when someone asks how she can persuade other voters at her caucus to vote for him.

"There is one major reason, and that is that I would be a very different leader than Al Gore would be," Bradley began. "It boils down to being willing to tackle big problems with big solutions."

He talked about gun control, education and campaign finance reform before stopping. "If you can shorten all that to about two minutes," Bradley smiled, "you'll be a great advocate."

Afterward, he tries to convince reporters that he is not disparaging Iowa when he talks about how the caucuses reward entrenched power. Then he headed off on a bus tour in eastern Iowa that would stop in more heavily Democratic areas like Davenport and Dubuque.

Friday

Bradley has hit a few more bumps in the road. Asked about his heart condition during the bus tour late Thursday night, he acknowledged he has had four instances where his heart beat irregularly since he first disclosed the problem Dec. 10.

At a stop in Muscatine, Bradley blamed the problem on switching to cream soda with caffeine. Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported that there is second-guessing among some Bradley aides and supporters about the Iowa strategy. Some of them wonder how much momentum Bradley has lost.

At an afternoon stop at a farm in Perry, Gore hammered away at Bradley's comments about how the caucuses reward "entrenched power."

"What I see in this room . . . is not entrenched power," Gore tells listeners, "it's people."

Today

The final push.

There continue to be murmurs about Bradley's irregular heartbeat, despite his efforts to brush it off. Some pundits are already looking toward New Hampshire, analyzing a new poll that shows Bradley has lost momentum there as well.

The Bradley bus tour is scheduled to stop in Iowa City this afternoon, then pull into Des Moines tonight. As the buses head west on Interstate 80, precinct leaders will attend one last meeting for final coaching and pep talks.

By late Monday afternoon, every Bradley supporter will receive a telephone reminder to attend the caucus.

By sunrise Tuesday in Iowa, Bradley plans to be in New Hampshire for the final push to the Feb. 1 primary there.

By then, all the phone calls, all the months on buses and planes and handshakes and speeches in this Midwest state will be a thing of the past. D'Alessandro, Bradley's Iowa field director, is left marveling at the machinery of an insurgent campaign.

"It forces you to think out of the box," D'Alessandro says. "It forces you, if you are going to be successful, whatever that is, to do things a different way. And we did things in a different way."

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