WASHINGTON -- In the most contentious debate of the Democratic contest, Bill Bradley shot down an offer yesterday by Al Gore for a cease-fire in their TV ad wars, dismissing the idea as a transparent political gambit.
Seated shoulder-to-shoulder in matching Washington power outfits, the candidates clashed over health care, education, Social Security, the Persian Gulf war and the Clintons' legal fees during a fast-moving hour on NBC's "Meet the Press."
But the encounter turned sharply personal when the topic shifted to campaign finance reform -- a top Bradley agenda item and a potential Gore vulnerability -- and Gore's refusal to accept a Bradley proposal to keep unregulated soft money out of next year's presidential election.
Swiveling around to confront his rival, Gore dangled a deal of his own: Why not stop all campaign commercials on television and radio, he suggested, and instead conduct a series of face-to-face debates, twice a week, until the nomination is decided?
Reacting quickly, Bradley tried to turn Gore's gambit against him, using it to underscore his portrayal of Gore as a conventional Washington politician. With undisguised disdain, Bradley rejected the proposal -- and Gore's outstretched hand.
"Al, that's good. I like that hand,"Bradley said in refusing to shake it. "The answer's `No.' I mean, why should I agree now? I'm not someone who's interested in tactics, Al."
Bradley acknowledged that his underdog candidacy needs television ads to communicate with voters. Campaign commercials are one of the challenger's best counters to Gore's considerable advantages, including the perks of incumbency and support from organized labor and the party establishment.
`Nothing but a ploy'
In dismissing Gore's proposal as "ridiculous" and "nothing but a ploy," the former New Jersey senator said, "It sounds to me like you're having trouble raising money."
Gore denied it. However, the vice president does face a potentially serious money squeeze that would be greatly alleviated by a moratorium on TV ads, the largest single cost of a national campaign.
In the year leading up to the primaries, Gore has spent campaign cash at a rapid clip. Even if he defeats Bradley for the nomination, he is likely to be at or near the approximately $60 million federal spending ceiling by spring.
That would leave him with no money to spend until August, when the national ticket receives an infusion of taxpayer dollars for the fall campaign, putting him at a serious disadvantage -- especially if cash-rich George W. Bush wins the Republican nomination. The Texas governor's refusal to accept federal matching funds means he's not subject to any spending limit, freeing him to spend tens of millions against his Democratic opponent in the spring and summer.
After a stumbling start, Gore has succeeded in slowing Bradley's progress in recent months. He has put Bradley on the defensive with repeated criticism of his sweeping health care proposal and warnings that its enormous cost would leave no money for rescuing Medicare, the government health insurance plan for the elderly.
Over the weekend, Bradley began airing a TV ad in Iowa defending himself against Gore's charges. Seniors make up the largest voter group in the Iowa caucuses, which take place five weeks from tonight.
In an effort to play up his image as an unconventional politician, Bradley lectured Gore, in very personal -- and somewhat condescending -- terms, on the need to project a positive vision for the nation.
A `negative message'
"If you're involved only in trying to go against someone, trying to hammer someone, about `This is wrong. That is wrong,' whether it's my health plan or what[ever], then you only have a negative message," Bradley said.
In refusing Gore's challenge of twice-a-week debates, Bradley noted that they have met three times -- including a late-night TV debate Friday -- and would have two more confrontations in the first week of January.
"You know something? For 10 months that I was running for president, you ignored me. You pretended I didn't exist. Suddenly, I started to do better, and you want to debate me every day," said Bradley, who has pulled even with or ahead of Gore in recent polls in New Hampshire, the leadoff primary state.
"The point is, Al, and I don't know if you get this, but a political campaign is not just a performance for people, which this [TV debate] is. It is, rather, a dialogue with people, Al."
Replied Gore, sighing deeply, "That's what I'm doing."
Noting that yesterday was the one-year anniversary of President Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives, moderator Tim Russert asked both men if they would support a request by Clinton to let the taxpayers reimburse him and his wife, Hillary, for legal expenses incurred in the lengthy independent counsel investigation of their personal and financial affairs.