Bradley credibility is part liability

Early strength in bid for president serves as warning to Gore

May 17, 1999|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MAQUOKETA, Iowa -- With his long-shot presidential candidacy suddenly on a roll, Bill Bradley is "having the time of my life."

He's drawing friendly audiences on the campaign trail, flexing early fund-raising muscle and establishing himself as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. "It helps that people think this is now a shot," he says in an interview.

The former senator may be enjoying more prosperity than he can stand. His newfound prominence may be hurting as much as it's helping, by raising expectations that he could have trouble meeting, and sending an urgent wake-up call to front-running Al Gore.

As Gore's sole Democratic challenger, Bradley is attracting, almost by default, the support of those who think the party needs to offer a fresh face in next year's election. He's won the endorsement of liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker and a smattering of other Democratic politicians around the country.

The soft-spoken ex- basket-ball star's candidacy has clearly gained credibility since he announced in December that he was running. Somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of Democrats indicate they might support him, polls show. But he's still running as much as 45 percentage points behind Gore in the same surveys.

By blooming early, Bradley, 55, has created demands that he's ill-prepared to satisfy. He's under growing pressure, for instance, to flesh out what he says are his "big ideas," as opposed to what he sees as Gore's smaller ones.

Their contest for the nomination, says Bradley, boils down to "whether what I think about the future is more compelling to people than what he thinks about the future." But Bradley doesn't intend to provide specifics until sometime this fall. (Gore has not elaborated on his vision, either.)

As individuals and politicians, the two men are more alike than not, though Bradley is clearly positioning himself to Gore's left. Implicitly drawing a contrast with President Clinton, whose success as a pragmatic politician has managed to overcome deep concerns about his character, the Bradley campaign is casting its candidate as a man of principle.

Unless he is asked, Bradley rarely discusses Clinton or Gore. He says little about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, except to lament the loss of public trust in the president that resulted from "the lie."

In sketching out his agenda, Bradley is calling for more federal spending to lift poor children out of poverty. He wants to extend health coverage to millions of Americans who lack insurance and help stressed-out parents find more time with their children and more meaning in their lives. Racial tolerance and campaign finance reform, two long-standing concerns of his, are also major themes.

His campaign plan called for Bradley to be flying below radar right now, safely out of view of the national media as he sharpened his message and quietly sought grass-roots support in early primary and caucus states. Instead, he has been surprised by the large number of reporters who want to cover his travels, now that his prospects seem to have improved. Many of the media reports, however, have only reinforced the somewhat misleading, but nonetheless damaging, notion that Bradley hasn't got much to say.

"You know, the conventional wisdom three months ago was that we couldn't raise any money, and now people are talking about whether Gore will collapse," says Anita Dunn, a longtime Bradley adviser.

"The conventional wisdom will never quite understand this campaign, because this is not a conventional candidate nor is it a conventional campaign. It is built around what Bill Bradley thinks the next president of the United States must do to move this country forward," she adds. "He's offering himself as a leader, and that is what it's always been about."

During the first three months of this year, Bradley raised a respectable $4.3 million (to Gore's $8.8 million). But it's unclear whether his rising political stock has made it any easier to find the millions more he'll need to defeat a vice president with all the trappings of that office.

He must keep going at a $500,000-a-week clip to reach his goal of $25 million (Gore will rake in twice that much). Bradley will say only that his money-raising is going "pretty well."

Perhaps the biggest downside to the Bradley boomlet, however, is the jolt it delivered to his heavily favored rival. After polls last month showed Bradley cutting into Gore's enormous lead, the vice president made it clear that he had gotten the message.

He recently began beefing up his campaign organization and agreed to spend a substantial amount of time in states such as Iowa, whose caucuses in February will be the first real test of the Democratic contest. Running as though the election were just around the corner and he were trailing, Gore plans to visit the state every two weeks from now on, aides say.

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