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Bill Bradley talks about his health during a press conference in Palo Alto, Calif. [AP photo]

Democrats should push for big ideas, Bradley says

The presidential hopeful says the booming economy offers an opportunity to tackle problems.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1999


ORLANDO -- Bill Bradley talks about big ideas, from providing health insurance to all Americans to eliminating child poverty to licensing and registering all handguns.

On Sunday, the presidential candidate urged Florida Democrats not to accept anything less than big solutions to big problems.

"Democratic leaders," Bradley said as he pounded the lectern, "do not settle."

The energetic, upbeat speech at the Florida Democratic Convention was Bradley's first campaign stop since he canceled appearances in California and Washington last week because of an irregular heartbeat. He has blamed the problem on skipping his daily medication and plans to release his medical records today.

After the speech, Bradley said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times that he feels fine. He said he does not expect his condition to become a campaign issue.

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"A nuisance, that's all," Bradley said in dismissing it. "It's like it's an attribute of a person."

The former New Jersey senator called Florida "a very important state" in the battle for the Democratic nomination, although the March 14 primary comes a week after primaries in such key states as California and New York.

Bradley and Gore are locked in tight battles in Iowa, the first caucus state, and New Hampshire, the first primary state. But Gore has the upper hand in Florida in opinion polls, money and endorsements from elected officials and party activists.

The vice president, who addressed the convention Saturday, has visited the state nearly 40 times over the past seven years. Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman, has even suggested that Sen. Bob Graham would be a good running mate for the vice president.

But Bradley supporters remain optimistic.

Jacksonville lawyer Steve Pajcic, who ran for governor in 1986, said Bradley has raised more than $1-million in Florida and was expected to take in $100,000 more at a fundraiser Sunday afternoon.

Other prominent Bradley supporters include former state House Speaker H. Lee Moffitt of Tampa, former state legislator Mike Abrams of North Miami Beach and lobbyist Allan Katz of Tallahassee.

"They've got the party insiders, and we're just where we would like to be," Pajcic said. "If either candidate loses both Iowa and New Hampshire, it is going to be hard to hang with them."

Bradley, who has made several little-publicized fundraising trips here, has long personal ties to Florida.

He was married in Palm Beach during his playing days with the New York Knicks. He recalled Sunday that his father first visited there about 1927, before a bridge was built to the city. The small-town Missouri banker began making regular trips there in 1947, when Bradley was 4 years old, and his parents lived most of the year in Palm Beach from about 1970 until their deaths several years ago, Bradley said.

Like Gore, Bradley pledged to restore the Everglades and vowed he would not "be cowed to sugar interests" in protecting it.

"I started going to the Everglades when I was 10 years old," he said in the interview. "My commitment is almost lifelong. When my parents lived in Florida, I would drive my daughter down to the Everglades when she was like 9 or 10, so she could feel the same place that I felt. We would ride on those little boats. So my commitment is absolutely strong."

So is his commitment on health insurance.

As Gore's criticism of Bradley's health care plan has escalated, Bradley's defense has become more aggressive. He wants to insure every child and provide subsidies to middle-class Americans who have insurance but struggle to pay the premiums. His new system would replace Medicaid, the health care program for the poor.

Gore said Saturday that Bradley's plan is too risky to end Medicaid and so expensive it would eat up the budget surplus and jeopardize Medicare. Bradley countered Sunday that Gore's plan, which would phase in coverage of children older than 4 and preserve Medicaid, is too timid. He said his plan, at an estimated cost of $65-billion a year, is financially sound and will not harm Medicare.

"I know that big ideas are easily attacked and misrepresented," Bradley said after his speech. "I've been there before. I did that with tax reform in 1986 and on a number of other things. But I am not going to shy away from doing what I think needs to be done. Nobody likes the current health care system. There are major quality questions that affect it as well as cost questions that we have to change."

In his speech, he said the booming economy offers an unprecedented opportunity to tackle problems such as health coverage and poverty. Bradley said the Democratic Party traditionally has been the party of big ideas and achievements, from Medicare to civil rights, and suggested Gore has abandoned that legacy.

"There are some people who say we cannot do big things any more, that we can just tinker around the edges and do little things here and there," he said.

Bradley's appearance capped a state Democratic convention dominated by racial themes.

Black and white Democrats proclaimed they are united against Californian Ward Connerly's proposed amendment that would ban consideration of race in university admissions and public contracting. They also criticized Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's initiatives in those areas, with U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville vowing to lead a large march on the state Capitol when the Legislature opens March 7.

Then Bradley was introduced by Duval County Sheriff Nat Glover, the state's first black elected sheriff since Reconstruction. Bradley pledged to support affirmative action just as Gore had promised, and he listed bringing racial harmony to the nation as one of his top priorities.

Bradley noted that white Americans will be increasingly dependent economically on non-whites in the next century. "That's not ideology," he told the delegates. "That's demographics."

Yet Bradley is not doing nearly as well among black voters as Gore, who held a large rally with black leaders Saturday in Atlanta before arriving in Orlando. Support from black voters is critical to winning the Democratic nomination, and Bradley suggested that his numbers will pick up as the campaign progresses.

"Most of the African-American community doesn't know who I am," he said in the interview. "You'd like to think that 18 years in the Senate makes you a household name, but it doesn't -- or 10 years with the Knicks. I think there are more people that would (support me) once they make that connection."

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