DES MOINES -- When Bill Bradley arrived here the other day, he reminded everyone that it was his 26th visit to Iowa in the year since he became a de facto Democratic presidential candidate.
And, if you listen to those around him, he plans to step up the pace in the six weeks left until the precinct caucuses here begin the process of choosing delegates for his party's convention.
This increased attention to Iowa -- and it is a change -- is noteworthy because the precinct caucus campaign here is one in which Mr. Bradley was considered to be at a significant disadvantage to Vice President Al Gore.
Indeed, the caucuses' format seems to favor the candidates of the political establishment because party regulars are more likely to participate.
Thus, the expectation might be that Mr. Bradley would be at a pronounced disadvantage. But Mr. Bradley and his strategists have decided that a good showing here would give him valuable momentum in the New Hampshire primary scheduled eight days later. So the former senator from New Jersey is planning to compete directly for Democrats considered nominally pro-Gore and for the undecided.
Bid for public employees
Thus, for example, although public employes are supposed to be one of Mr. Gore's most reliable constituencies, Mr. Bradley was given a warm reception when escorted around the Polk County employees annual Christmas party here the other night by county assessor James Maloney, a longtime activist who has worked for Democratic presidential candidates in these caucuses going back to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Unions are another core constituency for Mr. Gore, but two days after Mr. Bradley's appearance here several hundred members of several unions packed the Teamsters Halll in Cedar Rapids.
In both cases, the message was that Mr. Gore does not have an unbreakable hold on such party activists. Mr. Bradley still has a distance to travel here. The most recent Iowa Poll sponsored by the
cf03 Des Moines Register,
cf01 conducted almost a month ago, shows him trailing Mr. Gore 54 percent to 32 percent. But in June the same poll gave the vice president a 40-point lead.
Bradley strategists also are intrigued by the large number of Democrats who describe themselves as still undecided, offering a fertile field of potential caucus participants for the challenger.
The question is whether the campaign can persuade them to overcome their hesitation to attend a precinct caucus. They need a reason to show up. That's why the Bradley managers have ordered a heavy TV ad campaign leading up to the Jan. 24 date. And it is why the candidate himself will be here even more often than in the past.
Estimates of the likely turnout are tricky because the Democrats have not had a truly competitive precinct caucus campaign since 1988. In 1992, one of the state's senators, Tom Harkin, was running so other candidates skipped the state. In 1996, President Clinton had no opposition.
So Dan Lucas, the strategist running the Bradley campaign here, says he is planning for about 100,000 to take part, similar to the turnout in 1988, and expects the campaign to "do well," which is what they always say in such a situation.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.