MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The slogan on the wall at Bill Bradley's presidential campaign headquarters here, and the tag line of his television commercials, proclaims, "It Can Happen."
The reference is to the possibility, considered remote when Bradley first campaigned here last winter, that he could upset fellow Democrat Al Gore in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary Feb. 1.
After many campaign trips to the state and a steady grass-roots effort emphasizing door-to-door canvassing by college students and other supporters, polls show the former New Jersey senator breathing down the vice president's back.
Though significant differences exist, comparisons are being drawn between the Bradley campaign and the startling showing in 1968 of then-Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota that effectively drove President Lyndon B. Johnson from the Oval Office.
The McCarthy campaign, like Bradley's today, played on the appeal of the impossible dream. It ran a large ad in the Manchester Union-Leader, the state's largest newspaper, on the morning of the 1968 primary that declared, "How would you feel if you woke up tomorrow to find that Eugene McCarthy had won the Democratic primary? Would you feel that suddenly there was new hope for America?"
McCarthy, with a "Chidren's Crusade" of young Americans sparked to action by their opposition to the Vietnam war, didn't beat LBJ, a write-in candidate in New Hampshire that year. But he ran so close -- trailing the president by only 7 percentage points on primary day -- that shortly afterward Johnson shocked the nation by announcing he would not seek re-election.
Thirty-two years later, Bradley similarly is out to beat the Democratic Party's establishment candidate, who, while not the sitting president, is the closest thing to one in a year when the incumbent is prevented by law from another term. And while Gore strives to separate himself from the incumbent, he is conspicuously endorsed by President Clinton and is running on keeping Clinton's healthy economy humming.
Clearly, no burning foreign-policy issue divides the American electorate, as in 1968, when protesters were taking to the streets against the war in Southeast Asia and leaving campuses all over the country in droves to come to New Hampshire and ring doorbells for Gene McCarthy.
Bradley's volunteer canvassers come mostly from New Hampshire colleges and others in New England and New York, and for the most part they are not long-haired flower children dressed in bell-bottomed jeans, like McCarthy's young supporters -- that is, until many of them had their locks trimmed and their mustaches and beards shaved to be "Clean for Gene," so as not to offend the staid New Hampshirites.
Nor are the Bradley doorbell-ringers motivated by burning hatred of his opponent, as were the McCarthy kids, who often joined in the anti-war chant of the era: "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?"
Sylvia Chaplain, who as a mother of four small children was part of the McCarthy brigade here in 1968 and is now a member of Bradley's steering committee in the state, says this year's campaign "doesn't create quite the same passion" for her, "but I see it in the young people, and that's good." They don't ask her much about the McCarthy campaign, she says, "but I get points when I say I was in Chicago" -- for the raucous Democratic convention in which McCarthy workers, other convention-goers and protesters were harassed and beaten by Chicago cops.
In 1968, she says, she knew nothing of McCarthy's Senate record, but being against the war was enough for her. "McCarthy in my book was one of the good guys," she says. "Nobody ever looked at his record in detail. He was the guy who was against Vietnam."
Now, regarding Bradley, she says, "It's trust, believing in the kind of human being out there, the belief that this is a very real person. You're going to get what you see."
The current crop of youthful activists seems ignited not by a crisis but by Bradley's pledge to seek the Democratic nomination in, as he puts it, "a different way," eschewing attacks on his opponent and trying to accent the positive in his own proposals.
Renee Delphin, a Yale undergraduate who spent her summer in New Hampshire for Bradley, says, "What attracted me was his concern for everyone. I admired him as a individual."
His views on racial conciliation and campaign finance reform and his pledge to run a positive campaign cemented her support, she says. "I guess I'd been jaded by politics, and I was impressed by his saying money would not be playing the primary role in his campaign."
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