Bradley's retail campaign

June 23, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

LOS ANGELES -- On his 10-day presidential campaign swing through California, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley deliberately confronted the conventional wisdom about running statewide in this megastate -- that one-on-one retail politics can't work.

Mr. Bradley campaigned as if he were in Iowa or New Hampshire, small states where seeking out voters one at a time or in small groups has long been the mainstay.

But in the nation's most populous state, statewide campaigns are usually discussed and conducted in terms of television media markets. It is accepted here that television advertising gives a candidate much more bang for a buck -- and that it takes a mountain of bucks to get the job done.

Mr. Bradley was confronted more than once with this conventional wisdom as he toured the state that could, along with New York, decide the identity of the next Democratic presidential nominee. They are among the 11 states so far that are to hold primaries on March 7, 2000, on the heels of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

California will have 20 percent of all delegates to the Democratic nominating convention and could anoint the nominee, assuming one of the contenders, front-running Vice President Al Gore or Mr. Bradley, emerges strongly from the two smaller-state tests.

"California is more important than ever before," Mr. Bradley said at one stop. "I want to introduce myself to Californians by meeting them where they are. It's my way of telling them how I relate to people. Ultimately, in California it will be television. The pundits say you can't compete in person, face to face, in California. I disagree with that."

Casting doubt on that approach are poll numbers indicating that Mr. Bradley, despite celebrity status as a star college and pro basketball player and 18 years in the U.S. Senate, remains little known to most Californians. A recent Field Poll had Mr. Gore favored by 39 percent of those surveyed, to only 9 percent for Mr. Bradley. But 43 percent were undecided, indicating plenty of room for Mr. Bradley's support to grow.

The latest Los Angeles Times poll found that 61 percent had no opinion of Mr. Bradley, a measure of the work he has to do. Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, notes that two other recent statewide candidates, Michael Huffington running for the Senate and Al Checchi for governor, started out little known but used their personal fortunes to drive their voter recognition way up in a short period of time. But both lost, and Mr. Bradley does not have the kind of personal wealth to emulate their efforts.

Paul Maslin, a veteran Democratic pollster who is working for Mr. Gore here, says of Mr. Bradley's early one-on-one campaigning in this traditional mass-media state: "More power to him. But this is not a retail political state."

The outcome of the Democratic primary here, he says, "will be driven by what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire and then by television here. What he does here now will be largely forgotten by then. I'm not saying he's wrong doing it. If it's part of his plan, OK."

From Mr. Bradley's past history, it's clear that he has carefully calculated his early retail campaigning. He has waged an impressive fund-raising effort for a challenger. Also, he is generating considerable free media coverage as he goes.

Beyond his fame as a sports star, his gangling height and easy smile are helpful accompaniments to the one-on-one strategy, in which he concentrates on issue discussion -- albeit in generalities so far -- and eschews political sniping, seldom mentioning Mr. Gore and never attacking him.

The very fact that he has been challenging conventional wisdom here has itself caught the attention of the press. And he has one campaigning advantage over Mr. Gore -- he is not trailed by Secret Service agents and a horde of staff aides who make it harder for Mr. Gore to do much retail campaigning himself. That may not be a problem in California, though, as it might be in smaller states.

Mr. Gore also visited California last week on his kickoff campaign swing as a declared candidate and has the support of most of the Democratic establishment, including Gov. Gray Davis. Mr. Bradley must work around the party leadership here, and one obvious way is doing just what he is doing.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 6/23/99

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