By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2000
INDIANOLA, Iowa -- The staging was perfect.
The blue Gore 2000 banners were draped over the tiny steel balcony that encircles the old brick gym at Simpson College. Draped over the basketball goal was a large maroon banner with the college's name in yellow letters. Beneath the signs were several risers filled with eager, polite college students.
That was the backdrop behind the vice president one morning last week. Spread before him were about 200 supporters in folding chairs on the well-varnished court.
Gore took off his jacket and held the microphone in his left hand. He talked of how his mother grew up poor and of how his father met her in an all-night coffee shop. He recalled how he became a reporter because he wanted nothing to do with politics, then saw how much good government could do.
"I want to fight my heart out for you!" Gore told the crowd.
On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, a few of his punches at Bill Bradley are landing below the belt.
In a setting like the Simpson College gym, the jabs were sneaky. Without mentioning Bradley by name, Gore said the country should not squander the budget surplus "on a risky spending plan." He is referring to Bradley's proposal to replace Medicaid with a more ambitious plan to cover virtually everyone who has no health insurance.
Score that one as legitimate criticism.
But then Gore got personal.
"I do not believe the presidency is an academic exercise or a seminar on some grand theory," the vice president said.
The implication to the Iowa farmers was that Bradley, that northeastern guy with the degrees from Princeton and Oxford, is too much of an intellectual to fight for them or understand their concerns.
That's an attack on character, not issues.
In other venues, Gore insists on distorting or mischaracterizing Bradley's position or record.
On health care, the two Democrats have a basic disagreement over how fast to proceed in reducing the number of uninsured. Bradley wants to move quickly and spend more money; Gore favors a less expensive, phased-in approach.
But Gore misrepresents Bradley's plan. He continues to say Bradley would replace Medicaid for poor people with a "$150 voucher" that won't buy coverage, resulting in an increase in the number of minorities and others who don't have medical insurance.
Bradley may be irritated by this more than anything. He explains that the $150 is a weighted average that would vary from state to state and from plan to plan. In some states, the government would pay more. In others, it might pay less.
Gore ignores that reasonable explanation. Instead he trots out black and Hispanic families at debates as television props and contends that Bradley would put them at risk.
On civil rights, Gore suggests Bradley would intentionally weaken the 1964 Civil Rights Act by opening it up so that gays could enjoy the same protections as minorities. Bradley often reminds listeners he was in the Senate chamber as an intern on the night the '64 legislation passed and that witnessing the event ignited his interest in seeking public office.
"I would never do anything, anything that would possibly undermine that act," Bradley said in last week's debate.
On tuition vouchers, Gore notes that Bradley voted to experiment with them as a senator. But last week he suggested Bradley continues to support vouchers as a solution to public education.
In fact, Bradley has consistently said vouchers are not the answer.
On farm policy, Gore is running a television ad here that features Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin talking about the devastating 1993 floods.
"Al Gore was the only Democratic candidate for president who helped make sure Iowa got the help we desperately needed after those floods," Harkin says.
In fact, as the Washington Post points out in an ad watch, Bradley supported a $4.8-billion disaster relief package after the Midwestern floods. He only opposed an additional billion for farmers that was in a Harkin amendment and was approved. The Post concluded that it is unclear whether Gore even played any role in getting the extra money.
At times, the attacks have gotten to Bradley, and he has resorted to the negative remarks he has pledged to avoid. He noted Gore was the first to bring up Willie Horton, the ex-prison inmate made famous by backers of George Bush in the 1988 campaign. He dug up some 1988 remarks and votes Gore made on behalf of tobacco.
This appears to be Gore's strategy.
Attack Bradley often enough to force him to abandon the high ground and turn the contest for the Democratic nomination into just another street fight.
Scare low-income families into fearing Bradley would take away their health care, minorities into wondering whether he would jeopardize their civil rights and teachers into believing he would promote vouchers.
For months, the betting was on when Steve Forbes would resort to attacking George W. Bush with misrepresentations, distortions and incomplete versions of the truth.
Turns out we were watching the wrong guy.