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Is it too late for a better Bradley?

Fighting rumors that he's ready to drop out, Bill Bradley shares a relaxed, congenial debate with Vice President Gore.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2000

LOS ANGELES -- It is often said that losing political candidates do their best campaigning once they realize they are not likely to win the election. Bill Bradley is no exception.

Wednesday night, Bradley seemed to be at his very best during his ninth -- and perhaps final -- debate with Vice President Al Gore in their contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Instead of attacking Gore, as he has in past debates, Bradley delivered his own ideas in a positive and congenial manner. He even passed up a perfect opportunity to criticize Gore for alleged violations of campaign finance laws.

His relaxed demeanor suggested that Bradley may be coming to terms with the apparent futility of his continuing struggle to challenge a Democratic frontrunner who has so far seemed impervious to whatever the former New Jersey senator could dish out.

It also suggested that the two Democratic contenders have already begun the process of healing their differences in preparation for the fall campaign against the Republican presidential nominee.

Bradley has not won any of the primaries held so far, and polls show him falling even further behind in the upcoming contests.

Still, Bradley's staff hotly denied reports that he is thinking of dropping out of the race after his dismal showing on Tuesday in Washington state, where he campaigned for six straight days.

Bradley noted that only 250,000 voters have cast their ballots so far and that Gore has won only 41 delegates compared with his 27. Another 8.5-million voters will have an opportunity to decide next Tuesday, he said, and that is when he expects his campaign to "take off."

But if his campaign does not succeed, Bradley added, he would continue to talk about the issues that he thinks are important. And Gore, in a gesture of goodwill, responded that he would welcome a continued dialogue with Bradley.

"Absolutely false" was the phrase that Bradley press secretary Eric Hauser used in his effort to dispel the rumor that Bradley was considering dropping out. He accused Gore's supporters on Capitol Hill of spreading that rumor via e-mail.

"We've got a fighting chance," Hauser insisted. "We had crowds of thousands in Washington. There is a lot of juice here (in California)."

As proof that Bradley is not giving up, Hauser noted the candidate has purchased five minutes of prime time on national television tonight to talk directly to the voters in Tuesday's primaries. It will be broadcast at the end of the CBS news magazine, 48 Hours.

In the five-minute ad, according to Hauser, Bradley will outline his vision for America and urge voters to "seize the moment" to accomplish these lofty goals by electing him.

But Bradley's prospects in upcoming primaries are not good.

In California, the biggest of the 16 states where ballots will be cast next Tuesday, a new Los Angeles Times poll found that Gore is leading Bradley 5-1 among Democratic voters.

In the simultaneous "beauty contest" balloting in California, in which all candidates -- no matter what party -- are pitted against each other, the Times found Gore leading with 33 percent, followed by Bush with 26 percent, John McCain with 20 percent and Bradley with 7 percent.

During the debate, Bradley and Gore abandoned their usual practice of standing stiffly behind the podium. Instead they strolled into the center of the stage whenever they were given a chance to speak. It created a more relaxed atmosphere. They also referred to each other in an unusually friendly way.

Both men seemed to warm to the give-and-take early in the 11/2-hour debate when they were asked what their wives would do as first lady. Gore said his wife, Tipper, would make her own decision; Bradley suggested his wife, Ernestine, would highlight the efforts of Americans who are doing good works.

Then Gore, clearly trying to be friendly to Bradley, added that both men are "blessed" with remarkable spouses.

And when Gore offered a self-deprecating joke about his past claim to having "invented" the Internet, Bradley quipped: "I was waiting to make that joke."

Bradley seemed particularly passionate when asked about gun violence in the schools. "How many families will be marred by gunfire?" he asked. He said that even though the country focuses on major tragedies such as the massacre at Columbine High School, they should realize that 13 children are killed every day by a gun.

As for Gore, he seemed especially animated when asked what he would do for disabled persons. "We have to get every disabled person in America who wants to work into the workforce," he declared.

The two men agreed on most issues. Both expressed opposition to California Proposition 22, which would outlaw gay marriages; both said they were opposed to racial profiling.

In the past, Bradley has never missed a chance to recall that Gore had been accused of violating campaign finance laws.

When that subject came up on Wednesday night, however, Bradley focused on his own proposals for reform -- never mentioning the allegations against Gore. Nor did Bradley object when Gore said the two of them were in agreement on this issue of campaign finance reform.

For the most part, Gore and Bradley directed their criticism during the debate at the Republicans -- a sign that even before the primaries are over, the general election campaign may already be under way.

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