By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 1999
MIAMI -- It's still a tiny dot compared with Iowa and New Hampshire, but Florida is showing up on Bill Bradley's radar screen.
The day after his first New Hampshire forum with Vice President Al Gore, the former New Jersey senator left freezing temperatures for the warmth of the Sunshine State. He attended a fundraiser Thursday night in Jacksonville, spoke to hundreds of South Florida senior citizens Friday morning and raised more money Friday night in Miami.
Along the way, Bradley picked up a thing or two besides $1,000 contributions.
First, health care is not just about providing coverage to the uninsured. In a state with millions of senior citizens like those he visited in Pembroke Pines Friday, it's also about protecting Medicare and answering Gore's charges that Bradley's ambitious health plan would cloud Medicare's future.
Second, foreign policy is not an abstract theory in South Florida. When it comes to Cuba, politicians are expected to know where they stand. Bradley doesn't yet.
In a Miami Herald conference room Friday afternoon, Bradley was asked how he feels about the Clinton administration's policy of turning back Cuban boat people if the Coast Guard intercepts them at sea but allowing those who reach land to stay in the U.S.
"I don't know," he said. "I'd have to think about it, quite frankly."
A few minutes later, the question came up again.
"This is the first time I have encountered the issue," he said, "and I don't take a position unless I have looked at it thoroughly."
In Iowa, where Bradley is campaigning today, that answer might be good enough. Many voters would appreciate his frankness.
In Miami-Dade County, where the majority of residents are Hispanic, pleading ignorance on Cuba policy won't cut it.
Of course, Bradley has plenty of time to educate himself.
Florida's presidential primary is not until March 14. For months, it was thought that the nominations would be decided by then.
But now that Bradley has made it a race against Gore, the Democratic nomination could still be up for grabs when Floridians vote. There are signs that Bradley is starting to lay groundwork here.
Just in case.
Bradley's deputy campaign manager recently made several unannounced stops in Florida, including Tampa. The fundraisers in Jacksonville and Miami were expected to bring in nearly $400,000. And Bradley may yet come to December's state Democratic convention, an invitation he initially turned down.
Then there was Friday morning's obligatory visit to Century Village in Pembroke Pines, filled with thousands of older Democrats who regularly vote.
Bradley renewed his calls for tighter gun controls, including the licensing and registration of all handguns; campaign finance reforms; and reducing the number of children in poverty.
"You won't see one Bill Bradley one time and another Bill Bradley later," said Steve Pajcic, a Jacksonville lawyer helping direct the Florida effort. "That consistency will help him in the long run."
In the short run, Bradley has to decide how to answer Gore's mounting criticism of his health care plan while avoiding the political attacks he says voters hate.
The morning after the forum, Bradley uncharacteristically poked fun at Gore. It came after a question about teaching creationism in public schools. Bradley, who opposes it, noted Gore would endorse it under some conditions.
"I think that was sort of a misstep, and when you do that, this is what you have to do," he joked in a Nashua restaurant as he pivoted back and forth as though he had lost his balance.
In Miami, Bradley said he still intends to avoid attack politics. But he added a reference from his days as a basketball star: "I've been around long enough to know you can only take the elbow so long."
If Bradley is concerned by Gore's criticism of his health care proposal, he hasn't shown it.
The morning after the debate, the notoriously cheap Bradley impulsively bought a pair of shoes for $75 in Nashua. On commercial flights from Boston to Jacksonville on Thursday he seemed like just another business traveler, joking with passengers as he rearranged luggage in the overhead bins.
The former New Jersey senator also appeared relaxed Thursday night at a fundraiser at Pajcic's Jacksonville home. Sucking on mints he routinely uses to combat a dry throat, he did not directly answer Gore's criticism but said the country should tackle big problems when it is prosperous.
In Miami, Bradley said his health care plan will not harm Medicare, regardless of what Gore says. "Absolutely nothing bad is going to happen to Medicare," he promised.