WASHINGTON — Washington--It was a contemplative Bill Bradley who sat in his Senate office the other day and reviewed the close call he survived in his re-election to a third term. One result, he said wryly, is that "maybe now you'll believe me" that he intends to keep his campaign pledge to serve the full six years, and hence not run for president in 1992.
The narrow escape, the New Jersey Democrat observed, "said to me that you have to address the real concerns that people have . . . talk to them forthrightly about what's on people's minds, and what lurks under the verbal. And part of what I want to do is to try to do that in ways that I haven't. . . . The main thing is to make sure what we do as a senator impacts on people's lives, and that you communicate that to your constituents."
Mr. Bradley talked about what New Jersey voters said to him in the final days of the campaign as he intercepted them at the Port Authority bus terminal, at the tube trains in Hoboken, at Giants Stadium in the North Jersey Meadowlands, at bowling alleys. And what they said to him was, to sum it up, "You politicians are not listening to me, and you're not doing anything about what I'm trying to tell you."
"People would come up to me," Mr. Bradley recalled, "and say, 'I voted for you the last two times, but I'm not going to vote for you this time because I'm going to send a message to Florio.' " The reference was to Democratic Gov. James J. Florio, whose new tax program has the whole state in an uproar.
Others, Mr. Bradley went on, would say: "Bill, I want to tell you, I apologize before I say what I'm going to say, but I'm not going to vote for you this time. Nothing personal. I hope I'll be able to vote in the future for you, but not this time, because I have to let the governor know how I feel about what's happened."
Still others, Mr. Bradley recalled, would tell him: "You're an incumbent, and I'm against you. I was for you before, but I'm not for you now." They would go on, he said, "and reveal the incredible financial pressures that people are under in terms of higher health-care costs, oil and gas prices, housing costs, taxes. 'You're there, and you haven't helped me with this.' "
One night at the Port Authority terminal, he said, one man shouted: "You politicians haven't done anything." Mr. Bradley said, "I tried to explain what I'd done to deal with this circumstance, to no apparent result."
After the election, when he went back to the state to thank the voters and he asked them how they had voted, one told him: "I didn't vote. I didn't want you to take me for granted. You've got to talk to me. I'll vote for you in the future, but not this time."
Now, Mr. Bradley says, "I'm still digesting what it all means." One thing, he said, was that his refusal to engage in discussion of Mr. Florio's tax policy "conveyed to people that I wasn't sensitive to their economic circumstances. . . . I think that I didn't fully appreciate the financial pressures that people were under. The Florio thing was like a lid. Once you got the lid open, there were all these other things in there as well. So I think that I should have been more responsive and sensitive to economic circumstances of middle-class families, in a variety of ways."
Thus it seems to be a chastened Bill Bradley, more attuned to "an awareness of the extent to which people are skeptical about what any politician can do. Mostly they view politicians as making their lives more difficult, not less onerous. . . . People say, 'Don't take me for granted.' The irony is that I do understand how people are under stress, and I haven't taken people for granted. But I have to convey that better."
Having been through the close call, Mr. Bradley says, "it will cause me to ask questions about myself and what I do in a more fundamental way. . . . To have gone through something like this will make me a better person, a better public servant, and probably a better politician." But, he says, "this has to be demonstrated over time, and that is my goal" -- not the presidency. Not in 1992, anyway.