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Bill Bradley, stopping in Ybor City's Italian Club on Monday, tosses a basketball back to a supporter after autographing it.

In Tampa, Bradley takes on Bush

The Democratic presidential candidate says Gov. Jeb Bush's overhaul of affirmative action lacks vision.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2000


TAMPA -- For a few minutes Monday night, Bill Bradley sounded like he was running against Jeb Bush instead of Al Gore.

The former New Jersey senator, waging an uphill battle against the vice president for the Democratic nomination for president, strongly criticized the Republican governor's efforts to end affirmative action in Florida during a campaign stop in Ybor City.

"I think he has demonstrated a lack of vision and leadership by repealing affirmative action laws in the state of Florida," Bradley told the overflow crowd of about 200 at the Italian Club. "I will not yield to anyone who believes affirmative action is no longer necessary."

Bush wants to replace affirmative action policies in state contracting and university admissions with his One Florida initiative, which he argues will enhance opportunities for minority businesses and students. The governor's package includes a variety of proposals, including guaranteeing the top 20 percent of each high school class admission in a state university.

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But Bradley said Bush's actions will harm women and minorities and deprive them of educational and job opportunities. He encouraged supportive listeners to actively oppose the governor.

"Does anyone believe if Lawton Chiles were still alive and governor that affirmative action would have been repealed?" Bradley asked, referring to the late Democrat who died in December 1998 near the end of his second term. "Does anyone believe if Lawton Chiles were still with us the state would be so divided over this issue?"

It is a Bush-bashing week for Bradley.

Today, he will be in South Carolina to highlight the dispute over flying the Confederate flag over the state Capitol. Bradley says the flag is offensive to African-Americans and should be taken down. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate and Jeb Bush's older brother, has refused to take a stand in the controversy and contends it is a state issue.

Bradley and Gore both support affirmative action and lowering the Confederate flag in South Carolina. "I don't know of any differences between these two men on that issue," Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman, said of affirmative action.

But both candidates also need support from strong Democratic constituencies, such as African-Americans, as the campaigns move out of the small states of Iowa and New Hampshire and become national in scope.

Gore will campaign in South Florida and Tampa today and is expected to reaffirm his support for affirmative action. But Bradley aides and supporters said Monday night that the former New Jersey senator's comments were aimed at moving him to the forefront on issues of race.

"It's not just important that you're for it but that you show leadership on it," said Steve Pajcic, a Jacksonville lawyer who has led the fundraising effort in Florida for Bradley. "What you're saying is, "I am the Democrat who will stand up to people like George Bush, who stands up for the Confederate flag.' "

By emphasizing affirmative action in Florida more than he did in Iowa and New Hampshire, Bradley seized upon a high-profile issue and generated more attention in a state where Gore is much better known. While Bradley has visited Florida a handful of times during the campaign, Gore has made roughly 40 visits to the state since the Clinton administration took office in 1993.

This week's appearances by Bradley and Gore underscore the possibility that Florida's March 14 presidential primary could play a larger role than expected in deciding the Democratic nominee.

There are more than a dozen primaries on March 7, including contests in such delegate-rich states as California, New York and Ohio. Although Bradley lost to Gore in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, he is determined to remain in the race at least through March 14. Both candidates have sent more than a half-dozen campaign staffers to Florida.

At the Italian Club, Bradley draped his blue suit jacket over the podium and stood in the middle of the parquet floor. Appearing more at ease than he did at some recent New Hampshire stops, he bantered easily with questioners.

After a middle-aged man argued that Bradley's health care plan would trigger a tax increase and vowed never to register his gun as the Democrat proposes, Bradley dryly replied, "Sounds like we have a few disagreements."

When a USF college student asked him whether being a senator or a basketball player with the New York Knicks was "cooler," Bradley didn't hesitate. "Playing for the Knicks," he answered.

As he does at every campaign stop, Bradley portrayed his agenda as a collection of big ideas in the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt's call for Social Security and Lyndon Johnson's proposal for Medicare.

The former New Jersey senator wants to replace Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, with a broader plan to cover all children and most adults by opening up the federal employees' health insurance plan. He calls for eliminating child poverty, requiring all handguns to be licensed and registered, and overhauling campaign financing laws.

Patricia Hunter, a Northdale retiree, said she believes Bradley would have a better chance than Gore against the Republican candidate in the fall. But she is concerned that many Tampa Bay area residents know little about Bradley's campaign.

"He's behind the eight ball," she said. "Any time you have somebody in the administration in power, they are going to have a better chance."

Nancy Whitman, the Pinellas County Democratic chairwoman and a Bradley supporter, said she was discouraged by his losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. But she said Bradley supporters in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are continuing to organize.

"I like the fact that he is not playing the same old ball game," Whitman said. "We are going to keep working as though he won by five or 10 points."

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