WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., would have been a pronounced underdog if he had decided to challenge Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But he would have been a serious player. And as such, he shouldn't have been shut out of the campaign by his concern that he didn't have enough time to raise the $20 million to $25 million that seems to have become the required amount for presidential candidates these days.
The "money primary" has become the first test for any contender. The conventional wisdom is that if you can't raise that amount of money, you can't survive the course of the primaries next spring. The money is even more important, the theory goes, since California and New York have moved up their primaries and the campaigns will require huge amounts for television advertising.
And, in turn, those early primaries may mean the contest will be decided in the first two or three weeks of next March -- within a couple of weeks of the Iowa precinct caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
There is, however, a small irony in the fact that the distortion of the system caused by money has eliminated another potential opponent of Mr. Gore. And that lies in the fact that the one Democratic challenger still standing is former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. If there is one candidate in either party who may be able to use the money issue to his advantage, it is Mr. Bradley.
Throughout his public career he has been identified with political reform. And he is the one who quit the Senate three years ago after three terms because he believed the system was broken.
So Mr. Gore's hold on the nomination has not been strengthened by Mr. Kerry's decision. On the contrary, Mr. Bradley is now in a position to serve as a rallying point for anyone in the Democratic Party with reservations about Mr. Gore. And he is clearly in a position to exploit Mr. Gore's identification with fund-raising excesses at Buddhist temples and elsewhere.
It is also possible that Mr. Bradley will be able to get along with less money than would have been the case if Mr. Kerry and other Democrats had not been deterred from running.
By being the sole challenger to the vice president, Mr. Bradley will be assured of the kind of intense news coverage that can trump even the best television commercials if exploited properly.
If, for example, Mr. Gore makes a gaffe on an issue or performs poorly in a debate, Mr. Bradley is the obvious beneficiary so long as he doesn't make the same kind of mistakes himself. And because Mr. Gore is such an overwhelming favorite, a strong showing by Mr. Bradley in early opinion polls or the first tests in Iowa and New Hampshire can yield disproportionately high political dividends.
If, however, the contest between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley is prolonged, the money becomes increasingly important. Candidates obliged to compete for delegates in one state after another need the resources to establish organizations and, more to the point, to buy television exposure.
Mr. Gore is quite likely to raise a great deal more money than Mr. Bradley. And he will have the advantage of controlling the party apparatus and of operating from a position of power. He already has recruited strategists from the first rank, most notably consultant Robert Squier.
Those assets are less valuable in a case in which a candidate is a sitting vice president. Mr. Gore is already a known quantity to most voters. It's too late for him to buy a new image even if he felt so inclined.
Mr. Bradley, by contrast, has a relatively clean slate with the generation of voters who don't remember his days with the Knicks or those who pay little attention to the Senate. With Mr. Kerry out of the picture, it may be easier for Mr. Bradley to raise the money to fill in the blanks.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 3/03/99