Bradley is at his best moving without the ball

July 09, 1999|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Bill Bradley, the stealth candidate, proves again that you can usually reap a profit betting against conventional wisdom. Old C.W.: Forget Bradley. He's a dull cipher with no chance of slowing Vice President Al Gore's stroll to the 2000 Democratic nomination.

Semi-old C.W.: OK, Mr. Gore's in trouble, but Mr. Bradley's lackluster campaign is no threat.

New C.W.: Wow! Mr. Bradley's got money and legs. Take him seriously.

The smug chatterers who dismissed Mr. Bradley's 2000 hopes could have learned from John McPhee's 1978 classic, "A Sense of Where You Are," which profiled Mr. Bradley's basketball life at Princeton:

"The depth of Bradley's game is most discernible when he doesn't have the ball. He goes in and swims around in the vicinity of the basket, back and forth, moving for motion's sake, making plans and abandoning them, always watching the distant movement of the ball out of a corner of his eye."

That, it seems to me, is what Mr. Bradley's been doing in his weird, baffling campaign only now grabbing attention.

He's been moving without the ball.

No wonder the C.W.'s radar hasn't picked up Mr. Bradley. He's the political version of a stealth bomber. Reporters who try to follow Mr. Bradley come away bewildered -- he seems to meander aimlessly around the country like a lost bumpkin.

He won't appear on TV talk shows. In fact, he rarely pops up on the tube at all. No hyped speeches, no fiery quotes. While Mr. Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush stage red-white-and-blue spectacles, Mr. Bradley wanders into living rooms, gabs quietly with 30 or 40 people, doesn't even press them for a vote.

"There's a rhythm and pace to a campaign," he says. "I like where I am."

Suddenly Mr. Bradley's quiet, semi-visible campaign -- his movement without the ball -- makes him dangerous to a flustered Mr. Gore.

NBA nickname

When he played for the New York Knicks, teammates called him Dollar Bill -- not merely for his austere tipping habits, but because Mr. Bradley hit the jackpot long before the NBA's megabuck explosion.

Dollar Bill hasn't lost his touch. Tapping into college and sports friends, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Democrats unhappy with the Clinton administration, he's raised $11.5 million. In this political silly season, money is the barometer of clout.

"It overcomes the hurdle that he's a vast underdog," says New Hampshire Democratic chair Kathy Sullivan.

There's another hint in Mr. Bradley's surprising fund-raising -- discontent with Mr. Gore's faltering campaign and a revolt against Mr. Clinton's scandal-tarred reign.

One symbol of the rebellion: Sen. John Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat who popped up at Mr. Bradley's side in Iowa. "I'm endorsing Bill Bradley for president not because I dislike Al Gore," said Mr. Kerrey. "For me the choice is between two friends."

Pals and pols

But beyond friendship, it's payback time. Mr. Kerrey has had an edgy relationship with Mr. Clinton, whom he lashed severely in the Lewinsky scandal. Mr. Kerrey came close to running in 2000. Now his network will be valuable to Mr. Bradley. There may be other defectors -- keep an eye on Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat.

For Mr. Gore, caught in the backwash of the junior Bush's spectacular start, Mr. Bradley's emergence from ghostly anonymity is a double whammy. Just what Mr. Gore doesn't need -- a serious contender, draining energy, wrestling for dough, nagging him in debates.

As someone who followed Mr. Bradley's senatorial career, I can testify he's no fireball orator. He can be paralyzing on Third World debt or tax reform. Only on race does he come emotionally alive. With his receding hair line, baggy eyes and lumbering style, Dollar Bill's no Hollywood president.

Mr. Bradley's obvious assets: He's not Mr. Gore and he totes no Clinton baggage.

Another potential bonus: Mr. Bradley could stir the Democrats' disenchanted, long-forgotten left. (Liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, is another endorser.) Mr. Bradley is already pushing Mr. Gore on issues, notably a tough call to license and register handguns.

Sure, Mr. Bradley's a long shot. Mr. Gore has the White House apparatus, big donors and Democratic establishment. But if Mr. Bradley could pull a New Hampshire shocker and win the March 7 New York primary, who knows?

Maybe Mr. Gore should read Mr. McPhee's description of collegian Mr. Bradley moving without the ball:

"He studies his man. The man is trying to watch Bradley and the ball. . . . A high-lobbed pass floats in, and just before it arrives Bradley jumps high, takes the ball, turns and scores."

Dollar Bill is most dangerous one-on-one when he seems out of the play. Stay loose, Mr. Gore.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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