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Democrat face-to-face might not be cordial

Bradley could be forced to respond to Gore's attacks at a forum tonight.

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 27, 1999


HANOVER, N.H. -- For months, Al Gore and Bill Bradley have played a little-noticed, long-distance game of one-on-one.

Gore, the favorite, trying to sound like the underdog, attacking Bradley's record and calling for debates; Bradley attempting to ride above the fray.

Tonight, the contenders for the Democratic nomination for president finally share the same stage. The vice president and the former senator from New Jersey will appear at Dartmouth College in a one-hour forum broadcast nationwide by CNN, starting at 8 p.m.

The intrigue here will center on whether Gore keeps jabbing Bradley about specifics and whether Bradley can continue to deflect questions about old Senate votes and his devotion to the Democratic Party.

In a way, it may look like a classic role reversal.

Gore, once expected to run away with the nomination, is repackaging himself now that Bradley has made it a race. He has shaken up his staff, moved his campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville and ditched his vice presidential limousine for a Chevy Suburban as he campaigns in New Hampshire.

The vice president also is picking apart Bradley's Senate record and questioning his commitment to the Democratic Party.

"The items he is pointing out are items of record and items about issues," Gore campaign spokesman Roger Salazar said this week.

That is considerably more polite than Gore's evaluation of Bradley's $65-billion plan to make health insurance accessible to virtually every American.

"In one fell swoop canceling Medicaid, eliminating the chance to fix Medicare and wrecking the federal employees plan -- quite a day's work," Gore snaps in this week's Time.

Then there is the call routinely used by challengers more than incumbents. Gore has been demanding a series of debates, and Bradley has been putting him off.

Such maneuvering is hardly the norm for an incumbent vice president who expected to be looking straight ahead to the general election instead of over his shoulder at a challenger from his own party.

But the Democrats have eclipsed the Republicans for intrigue and early excitement. Republican front-runner George W. Bush has such a lead in money and in the polls he can afford to skip Thursday night's forum here, leaving Arizona Sen. John McCain and publisher Steve Forbes to share the stage with three marginal candidates.

But Bradley has crept even with Gore in opinion polls in New Hampshire, which will hold the nation's first primary Feb. 1. A new national opinion poll by the Washington Post lists Gore ahead of Bradley 56 percent to 33 percent, a sharp drop from a 45-point lead less than two months ago.

Bradley portrays himself as a high-minded candidate who sets his own pace and flies above the routine campaign mud-slinging. He actually had more money in the bank than Gore at the end of September, but the former basketball star reminds supporters that he is still running against a vice president backed by the Democratic Party machine.

"We are very careful," said Anita Dunn, Bradley's communications director. "This is not about the vice president."

Bradley and Gore are both expected to promote their ideas for expanding health coverage, reducing poverty and protecting the environment tonight. Still up in the air is whether Gore will continue to raise questions about Bradley's loyalty to the party.

Gore has hit Bradley hard on his 1995 decision to retire from the Senate after 18 years. The vice president's campaign says Bradley decided to leave when it looked bleakest for Democrats, after Newt Gingrich led the Republican takeover of the House.

Gore's supporters say he kept up the battle, and his followers in Iowa waved "Stay and Fight" signs at a recent appearance.

"Rep. (Richard) Gephardt was there, the president was there, the vice president was there," said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and prominent Gore fundraiser. "But Bill Bradley was not among those people at that time of turmoil. At a time when leadership rises, he did not rise."

Bradley counters that he continued to campaign for Democrats even after leaving office. He says he chose other forums to pursue policy changes, from a stint at Stanford University to a series of speeches on the lecture circuit to writing books.

While Bradley told reporters in 1995 that he had not ruled out running as an independent against President Clinton in 1996, he says now he never seriously considered it.

"I don't think that resonates with anybody," Pinellas County Democratic Chairwoman Nancy Whitman said of questions about Bradley's devotion to the party. "I don't see him as giving up the fight at all."

Diana Carlin, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, said Bradley can turn a discussion about his departure from the Senate into an advantage.

"If I were coaching him," she said, "what I would have him argue is not so much he ran away but he went looking for answers in another place."

Then there is Bradley's record in the Senate.

An analysis by the Associated Press found Bradley and Gore were on the same side in 79 percent of the roll call votes during the eight years they served together in the Senate. But the vice president has found plenty to criticize about Bradley's positions.

Gore's campaign has characterized Bradley as a supporter of Reaganomics and the economic policies that drove up the federal deficit in the '80s. Bradley points out that he voted for the Reagan budget cuts in 1981 but against the tax cuts that led to higher deficits. He also was a major author of the 1986 tax reform that closed tax loopholes but also lowered tax rates.

"If those taxing and fiscal policies were not implemented, the '90s -- as good as they have been -- would have been a much more interesting decade," Berger said.

Gore supporters also have criticized Bradley for voting against 1996 welfare reforms, which dramatically reduced the number of poor people on welfare. Bradley counters that the legislation he voted against is not the same as current law, because benefits for legal immigrants and many others have been restored.

Steve Pajcic, a Jacksonville lawyer who will host a fundraiser for Bradley Thursday night, said Gore's early scrutiny of Bradley's record will not have a big impact with voters. He predicted Bradley will be able to avoid responding to such attacks. If those attacks continue when the TV advertising starts in earnest, Pajcic said, "then you have to fire back."

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