Gore calls Bradley dreamy `theorist' about health care

Vice president's rival in Democratic race says surplus enables changes

January 09, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

JOHNSTON, Iowa -- Vice President Al Gore repeatedly put challenger Bill Bradley on the defensive yesterday as the Democrats brought their debate show to Iowa, site of the first voter test of the presidential campaign.

With a new poll showing Bradley failing to gain ground here, Gore used the hourlong television encounter to attack his rival over Medicare and agriculture, issues of importance in this state.

Bradley responded with remarks aimed at two of his key voter targets: liberals and Democrats who have been disappointed by the Clinton-Gore administration.

Gore continued to pound away at Bradley's sweeping $650 billion health care plan, the centerpiece of his candidacy. Bradley's initiative "does not put a penny" into saving Medicare, which will be "totally bankrupt" by the year 2015, Gore warned.

The vice president, who would set aside $374 billion to shore up the government health insurance program for the elderly, also criticized Bradley's plan for replacing Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor.

Accusing Gore of "scare tactics" and misrepresentations, Bradley noted news reports of larger-than-expected federal surpluses over the next decade to support his contention that there would be enough money in the budget to keep Medicare solvent and finance his health plan at the same time.

Gore dismissed those reports as mere speculation. Bradley's plan is "fiscally irresponsible," he said, comparing his rival to a man who fell from a 10-story building "and, as he passed the fifth floor, said, `So far, so good.' "

Government programs for the elderly have increasingly become a focus of the Gore-Bradley contest. But they are taking on extra significance in Iowa, where the average caucus-goer is older than age 50.

Bradley has been forced to run TV commercials here defending his commitment to protect Medicare. Gore claims in his campaign ads that he's "the only Democratic candidate who saves Medicare."

Defense spending questioned

With an eye toward this state's solid core of liberal activists, Bradley criticized Gore's plan to step up defense spending, which he said would take money away from "pressing social needs."

Yesterday's debate, their second in four days, kicked off an intense period of campaigning leading to the state's caucuses Jan. 24.

In keeping with this state's genteel political tradition, the tone of the event was much less caustic than their most recent debates. Gore, in particular, went out of his way to soften his attacks. He praised Bradley as "a good man."

Iowa's Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is officially neutral, said there was no clear winner in the debate. That, he added, would make it "even more difficult for undecided Democrats to make up their minds."

But with only two weeks to go until caucus night, any failure by Bradley to gain ground works to the benefit of the front-running Gore, who holds a 54 percent-33 percent advantage in Iowa, according to a statewide poll released yesterday. Another 13 percent of likely caucus-goers are undecided.

Nearly half of those surveyed said they might switch their support.

The poll was published by the Des Moines Register, which sponsored the debate, at a public television station in a Des Moines suburb.

For the first time in the 2000 race, the candidates debated farm policy in this, the nation's leading corn-and hog-producing state, whose agricultural economy remains sluggish.

Gore, who planted several supporters in the audience as props to dramatize his arguments, introduced a hard-pressed family farmer, then challenged Bradley to explain his Senate votes opposing a variety of farm-state initiatives.

Bradley, who represented New Jersey in the Senate, responded by paraphrasing a debate question made famous by Ronald Reagan when he unseated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

"Al has been hammering me on these agriculture votes from 15 years ago," said Bradley, who said that the important question for Iowa farmers is, "Are you better off than you were seven years ago, or do we need a change?"

Campaign finance reform

Bradley, saying the country needs "bold leadership," accused Gore and the Clinton administration of failing to make a strong push for campaign finance reform.

"Al says he supported [reform] for 20 years. Well, nothing's happened," said Bradley, promising to put the issue atop his agenda.

Gore, again dismissing Bradley as a dreamy "theorist," replied that campaign reform failed in Congress because of Republican opposition. Those Democrats who had stayed in the Senate and fought (a dig at Bradley's 1996 retirement) had unanimously voted for reform, he said.

The latest Iowa poll, following the release of a survey last week showing Bradley within 13 points of Gore, suggests that the challenger's stepped-up organizing in the state has yet to yield clear progress. Bradley is hoping for a strong showing here to vault him past Gore in the New Hampshire primary eight days later.

Among Republicans, George W. Bush continues to run far ahead of his rivals. The Texas governor had 45 percent to 18 percent for runner-up Steve Forbes in the Register's latest poll, which has a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

The remainder of the GOP field remains in single digits in Iowa, with a statistical tie for third place between radio talk show host Alan Keyes at 9 percent, Arizona Sen. John McCain at 8 percent and conservative activist Gary L. Bauer at 7 percent. Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch trails with 2 percent.

Next weekend, the Republicans will meet here in debate.

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