"What was once a one-sided contest has moved into the realm of competitive," Hart said. "But to suggest that, nationally, Gore is anything but the front-runner would be a mistake."
Gore's position as vice president has given him an institutional megaphone that Bradley lacks, and he has more money than Bradley to broadcast his message.
The Gore campaign announced last night that it had raised $6.5 million in the third quarter, bringing the year's total to about $24 million. That should bring an infusion of $13.5 million in federal matching funds in January.
The Bradley campaign has not released its most recent figures, but its second-quarter numbers lagged behind Gore's.
Gore's proposal for debates, Hart said, would help Bradley by placing the two candidates before the voters on equal footing.
"It's going against the conventional wisdom," he said. "But then again, it's probably not a bad time for Gore to go against the conventional wisdom."
The vice president put it in loftier terms. The debates, he said, would "lift our democracy and make of this campaign a chance for our country to rekindle the spirit of democracy and to show that a campaign can be an ennobling experience."
In some sense, Gore was calling Bradley's bluff. Last weekend, Bradley asked Democratic officials to put aside Gore's institutional advantages and allow the campaign to be "a spirited debate of ideas."
"It's time for this to become a real, serious race and not just a beauty contest," Neel said.
Gore advisers are confident of the vice president's debating skills. He was widely perceived to have been the winner in his showdowns with the Republican vice presidential candidates Dan Quayle in 1992 and Jack Kemp in 1996, and with Ross Perot over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. And, they said, one-on-one contests would do more to deflate the Bradley mystique than to build him up.
"We don't have to worry about elevating him; he is elevated," Neel said of Bradley, pointing to the news media's coverage of him. "You guys have elevated him."
Anita Dunn, a senior Bradley consultant, said the candidate would be appearing with Gore for town hall meetings. The first such meeting is planned for Oct. 27 in New Hampshire.
But she avoided agreeing to a formal series of debates proposed by Gore, saying: "Whether one campaign can dictate the timing is another question.
"Look," Dunn said, "the story today is not about us. It's about the Gore campaign changing its tactics, strategy and location -- again."
Pub Date: 9/30/99