MANCHESTER, N.H — MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The Republican presidential race has the explosive issue (abortion), the unpredictable character (Patrick J. Buchanan), the romantic insurgent (Gary Bauer), the alluring mystery man (George W. Bush), the methodical grind (Lamar Alexander), the innocent underdog (Dan Quayle), the unreconstructed warrior (John McCain), the whimsical Wunderkind (John R. Kasich) and the unconventional outsider (Elizabeth H. Dole).
But it's the Democratic race, with the two boring and balding, middle-aged and moderate, respectable and responsible, pensive and pedantic guys that's really interesting.
Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore are both Ivy Leaguers. They disagree on almost nothing. Their personal lives are unassailable. Their impulses are similar. (Mr. Bradley recently gave a speech about race; Mr. Gore gave one, too.) Their generational outlooks are identical. Plan for a ground war between these two men.
The Republican race is frozen in place, waiting for state legislators in Austin, Texas, to free Mr. Bush from his comfortable captivity and for handlers in Washington to release Mrs. Dole from the velvet confines of her own isolation chamber.
But the Democratic race is changing every day. At last look, the vice president was streaking to victory, winning the endorsement of commissioners in counties you never knew existed, grabbing contributions from entrepreneurs whose e-companies are still IPOs in Wall Street's eyes.
At last glance, Mr. Gore was masterly in maneuvering all his rivals out of the way, smiling pleasingly as a parade of Democratic challengers -- Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts -- stood down from the race. It seemed that Mr. Gore was gliding toward the nomination on the jet stream of peace and prosperity.
No more. Peace is yesterday's reverie. Mr. Bradley doesn't have any endorsements from New York borough presidents or Chicago aldermen, but he does have Dave DeBusschere, Phil Jackson and Willis Reed from the Knicks (and Mr. DeBusschere's experience as a White Sox pitcher and Mr. Jackson's as the Chicago Bulls' coach might count for something in Cook County).
In any case, they're worth about the same as standard-issue politicians at this point, though in a contest where the rebound might take on special importance, Mr. Bradley might not be as behind as the experts say.
But the primary problem is that the Democratic race has become, as Mr. Gore's high-tech friends say, binary. Anyone who has spent as much time as Mr. Gore has in Silicon Valley shouldn't be surprised that the result is that Mr. Bradley is in the default position.
A dark horse
Right now there are a few surprising signs of life in Mr. Bradley's campaign (though its hulking body is only stirring) and a few startling signs of weakness in Mr. Gore's (though it's hard to tell whether the body is alive even in the best of cases). Don't bet the gym on Mr. Bradley's prospects, but don't count him out, either.
The principal reason: A string of responsible polls shows President Clinton's approval ratings dropping along with the bombs in Yugoslavia. Mr. Gore's future is no less wrapped up in aerial bombing in 2000 than Hubert Humphrey's was in 1968.
That is a chilling thought for the vice president's camp now that Mr. Clinton's approach to Belgrade seems to be the same as Ulysses S. Grant's approach to Spotsylvania in the fourth year of the Civil War: "I intend to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."
Ordinarily, the comparison between Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton might redound to the vice president's benefit. Gore insiders like to say Americans are ready for a little less personality in the White House. But the bad news from recent days doesn't bear that out.
Bad: A poll by the Pew Research Center has some unsettling comparisons, chief among them the finding that Mr. Gore's support among women, perhaps the critical constituency in the Democrats' political coalition, is far below Mr. Clinton's.
Worse: A Gallup Organization survey is showing that Senator McCain, an Arizona Republican, would be the only major GOP contender in danger of losing a general-election matchup with Mr. Gore.
Worst: The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll found that about a third of voters believe the vice president's weakness is "his association with President Clinton." No wonder the people who search through the entrails of Mr. Gore's speeches are finding that he is mentioning the president's name less frequently.
And so the sobering fact at the end of the Clinton years is that the Democratic contest to choose his successor isn't about Mr. Gore or Mr. Bradley after all. Like everything else since he came to national prominence in 1992, it is all about Mr. Clinton.
David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe.
Pub Date: 5/04/99