DES MOINES, Iowa -- Bill Bradley returned to Iowa yesterday for his 64th day of presidential campaigning here, buoyed by a new poll that showed him narrowing the margin by which he trails Vice President Al Gore in Iowa, 18 days before the state's kickoff precinct caucuses.
The poll, taken for four area television stations, had a relatively small sample of 300 likely Democratic caucus attendees.
But it showed Gore ahead of Bradley in Iowa by only 13 percentage points, compared with a lead of 28 points in a similar poll conducted in November. And the new poll came amid other signs that the former New Jersey senator is closing the gap on Gore sufficiently to persuade Gore strategists here to try to raise the bar for success for Bradley.
Steve Hildebrand, Gore's Iowa campaign manager, suggested that the results of the Jan. 24 caucuses "will be much closer than people think it will be" and that intensive Bradley advertising in the state means "they've figured out he has to win Iowa to win the presidency."
Until now, political observers have contended that if Bradley could simply make a respectable showing here against Gore, who is backed heavily by the party establishment and most of organized labor, he would head into the critical New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1 surviving as a serious contender.
Hildebrand's remark came as Gore was trying to lower the bar for himself, having declared in a New Hampshire debate with Bradley on Wednesday night that he is the "underdog" in the race, at least in New Hampshire. Bradley responded by saying that "your underdog pitch brings tears to my eyes."
But here in Iowa, Hildebrand said, "we're worried about the amount of money Bradley is putting in the last weeks," estimating the total at about $1 million, plus a heavy campaigning schedule in the state down the homestretch.
He described Bradley, who started his presidential bid as a dark horse, as "a dark horse with money" now.
The latest poll, by PSI Research of Alexandria, Va., for WOI-TV in Des Moines and three other stations, gives Gore 45 percent to 32 percent for Bradley and 22 percent undecided.
Dan Lucas, the Iowa campaign manager for Bradley, said his campaign's own polling indicated that as many as half the past caucuses voters surveyed still have not settled on a preferred candidate.
He cited this fact as an opportunity for Bradley, on the assumption that Gore's establishment and labor support is already in his corner.
The poll also indicated that Bradley led among male voters and that Gore's standing with female voters had dropped but had increased among the elderly, who traditionally vote in high numbers in Iowa caucuses. Gore, who has campaigned 36 days in Iowa, will return today with a key new supporter -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The two will make stops in Dubuque and Cedar Rapids before arriving in Des Moines for a rally tonight.
"Twenty percent of the hardest-core Democrats will attend the caucuses," Hildebrand said, "and they all love Ted Kennedy."
Gore and Bradley will face each other in another debate here tomorrow, sponsored by the Des Moines Register, and are expected again to focus on their differences over proposed reforms to health care, campaign finance and gun control.