KEENE, N.H. -- Bill Bradley champions campaign finance reform, while wealthy corporations subsidize his travels. He's running for president as a liberal, yet supported key Reagan initiatives in the Senate. He deplores packaged politics, but recruited a Madison Avenue ad team to sell his candidacy.
Those apparent inconsistencies, and others, are likely to draw increased attention as the Democratic nomination contest intensifies. The former New Jersey senator is showing unexpected strength against Al Gore, particularly here in New Hampshire, where the race could go either way.
Bradley's appeal, according to polls and campaign analysts, is rooted in his image as an anti-politician in an age of manufactured reputations and political gimmicks.
It is an image that Bradley and his organization are working hard to perpetuate. "He's authentic," gushes liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, in a video on Bradley's campaign web site.
Bradley, who is to make his first Baltimore campaign appearance today, draws applause from voters by vowing to wage a different kind of candidacy -- one more positive and honest, he says, than Americans have come to expect.
But promising to run a more high-minded race raises a new set of potential problems. The news media and the voters may hold Bradley to a higher standard as he responds to Gore's attack with attacks of his own or when he takes positions in the course of the campaign that make him look like a typical politician.
"No question. That's part of the gamble," a Bradley strategist acknowledges.
In campaign speeches, Bradley is addressing one apparent incongruity: his prodigious success at raising money in a campaign finance system he condemns as corrupt.
"I got myself in a little contradiction," he says, referring to the need to raise millions of dollars for his campaign, much of which has come from rich donors on Wall Street and California's Silicon Valley.
The remedy, he explains, has been to "hold myself to a higher standard" than existing law.
Departing from his practice as a senator, he has refused to take contributions from political action committees. The public relations value of that decision may outweigh the financial cost, since PACs play only a tiny part in funding presidential campaigns.
At the same time, he isn't holding himself to a higher standard when it comes to a practice long criticized by reformers: the use of borrowed corporate jets to ferry himself and aides around the campaign circuit.
The candidate is only required to reimburse the plane's owner for first-class airfare -- typically far less than the actual cost of operating the plane. Bradley, who took at least 45 such flights in the first nine months of the campaign, is effectively receiving subsidies worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from the corporations, which are forbidden by law from directly contributing to a federal candidate.
The Gore campaign, which receives an even larger subsidy from the taxpayers through the use of Air Force Two and other vice-presidential perks, has criticized Bradley for not making a more thorough disclosure of his corporate benefactors. Unlike Republican Sen. John McCain, another professed reformer who is using borrowed jets in his presidential campaign, Bradley has refused to disclose details of the trips he has taken using corporate aircraft.
Bradley's campaign responds, accurately, that what he is doing is legal and his limited disclosures meet the admittedly lax requirements of the Federal Election Commission.
Bradley, who declined an interview request for this article, is blunt that he plans to do what it takes in challenging an incumbent vice president backed by the president and most of the party establishment.
"I've got to use every edge that I can get," he says.
After playing down his background as a pro basketball star for most of his political career, Bradley now capitalizes on it at every turn. He refers often to his sports exploits in speeches and recently staged a Madison Square Garden fund-raiser that featured retired hoops greats.
Bradley has said he intends to "run a campaign that's not packaged" and that the key to winning is "a matter of what you say and whether you're real."
There was some momentary embarrassment, then, when it was revealed recently that Bradley had been meeting for 16 months with a team of New York advertising executives, who are responsible for his campaign commercials that encourage voters to back his underdog campaign with the slogan "It Can Happen."
As politicians often do for a campaign, Bradley has altered his position on some sensitive issues.
He now supports the gasoline additive ethanol, highly popular in the key presidential state of Iowa, after opposing it in the Senate. He has dropped his backing for school vouchers, which are unpopular among Democratic primary voters. And after hinting that he would consider raising the retirement age to keep Social Security solvent, he has now pulled that option off the table.