Bradley tries not to offend

November 10, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Ever since Vice President Al Gore finally noticed that somebody named Bill Bradley was contesting him for the Democratic presidential nomination, he has been making up for lost time.

At every turn he is taking shots at the benign-sounding former senator and basketball star without yet upsetting Mr. Bradley's almost blissful composure.

After implying that Mr. Bradley was a quitter for having left the Senate after 18 years of service, and baiting him to debate "every week," Mr. Gore has started to take dead aim at various Bradley proposals, including his call for campaign finance reform and a new approach to, and extension of, health care insurance.

After Mr. Gore's top campaign strategist, former congressman Tony Coelho (who himself quit the House), erroneously alleged that Mr. Bradley had never championed campaign finance reform in the Senate, the Bradley campaign had Doug Berman, the chairman, send a letter to Mr. Coelho refreshing his memory on the point with detailed citations.

Health care debate

More recently, when Mr. Gore charged in their debate in New Hampshire that Mr. Bradley's estimate of from $55 billion to $65 billion as the cost of his health care program was all wrong, Mr. Bradley contented himself with observing that he and the vice president each had his experts and that he had confidence in his own.

Such responses by the Bradley campaign were in keeping with its candidate's pledge to accentuate the positive and not engage in personal attacks against his opponent.

Whether motivated by altruism or the belief that promising to stay on the high road is smart politics in this day of deep public cynicism toward politicians, ex-Senator Bradley has notably been turning the other cheek.

At the same time, as an old basketball player, he has said he knows something about using your elbows to fend off aggressive moves.

His wife, Ernestine, often amuses audiences by telling what she first noticed in watching him play in their courting days was how he would fling his elbows out to get and keep advantageous positions on the court.

With Mr. Gore coming after him after months of ignoring him, Mr. Bradley has begun in his fashion to use his elbows.

The trick in basketball is to nudge an opponent off balance without being caught by the referee. Mr. Bradley's latest responses to Mr. Gore's attacks follow that technique.

In a recent speech, he contrasted his comprehensive health care package with Mr. Gore's "much more modest proposal."

He said "the Clinton-Gore administration had the right idea in 1993" but "the lesson Al Gore learned from the health care defeat was that big things can't get done in Washington, so let's look to the small things. That was the wrong lesson."

An earlier Bradley press release noted that Mr. Gore in the New Hampshire debate had referred to a "nonpartisan analysis" by an Emory University academic of the two candidates' health care proposals.

But the school earlier had identified him, the Bradley campaign pointed out, as a man who "advised Vice President Al Gore on health insurance issues."

Mild responses

From all this, it can be reasonably deduced that Mr. Bradley believes that voters are fed up with negative campaigning and sharp attacks back and forth between contending candidates.

By ignoring Mr. Gore's charges or merely gently turning them away with only a mild poke back, Mr. Bradley obviously hopes to tap into that sentiment.

The question is whether he can continue to show the restraint under attack that he has managed so far.

A time-honored axiom in politics, as embraced and practiced by professional political consultants, is that a charge unanswered becomes a charge believed.

Mr. Bradley to date has answered in the mildest of ways, no doubt hoping that the attacker will experience a voter backlash.

Baseball manager Leo Durocher had another axiom: "Nice guys finish last." Mr. Bradley, whether he is really a nice guy or is just playing one for his own purpose, is putting that other slogan to the test.

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

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