Bradley put on defensive on farm voting record

Gore's attacks test resolve of rival not to engage in negative campaigning

January 13, 2000|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- For a year now, former Sen. Bill Bradley has been insisting that he will stay on the high road in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination against Vice President Al Gore. Here in Iowa, that commitment is meeting a stiff test, as Gore hammers Bradley on past Senate votes that the vice president says show an insensitivity to farmers' needs.

Gore's assertion in their debate here Saturday that Bradley voted in 1993 against disaster relief for Iowa flood victims has thrown Bradley on the defensive. It has also produced a counterattack from Bradley -- who had vowed to campaign in a positive view on his own proposals -- against Senate votes by Gore on tobacco.

A cartoon in the Des Moines Register this week depicted Bradley and Gore in a pigpen, swapping allegations, as a pig asks: "Is it January 24th yet?" -- the date of the Iowa caucuses, the first real test of voter sentiment of 2000.

The Gore character asks, as he did in that debate: "Did you know that he voted against ethanol and flood relief? And he's from New Jersey?"

And the Bradley character repeats his line from the same debate -- "Are you better off than you were seven years ago?" -- borrowed from a similar line by Ronald Reagan in a 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter.

These exchanges show how Gore, with his trumpeting of past Bradley votes on agriculture, has elevated the concerns of Iowa farmers to the central issue of the campaign here. It is political terrain with which the former Tennessee senator is more familiar than his opponent is. Though Bradley is a Missouri native, he has spent his adult life on the Eastern Seaboard.

Until Gore questioned Bradley about his Senate votes on flood relief and federal subsidies for ethanol, the fuel made from corn, the state's leading crop, Gore had been focusing his criticism on Bradley's plan for sweeping health care reform. Bradley proposes, among other things, ending Medicaid and replacing it with broader coverage. But Gore's attacks stress the idea of killing Medicaid, often without mentioning Bradley's full plan, or else belittling it.

That attack also had the former New Jersey senator on the defensive, but that was a battleground on which he had experience in the Senate.

Agricultural policy is another matter. Gore's questioning of Bradley's votes on certain farm issues was clearly intended to retarget the campaign war of words.

In advance of the debate, an agriculture expert on the staff of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Gore supporter, found that in 1993, after severe floods hit Iowa farmland, Bradley voted against a Harkin-sponsored amendment to add about $1 billion to a $4.7 billion disaster relief bill that Bradley had voted for. The amendment provided a formula for additional aid to Midwest flood victims of crop loss, which was extensive in Iowa.

Anita Dunn, Bradley's communications director, said the former senator voted against the Harkin amendment because the leader of the disaster relief bill, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, wanted no amendments. But only Bradley and five other Democrats opposed the Harkin amendment, and it passed.

Gore entered the Saturday debate primed to blind-side Bradley on his vote on the Harkin amendment. His staff planted in the audience a member of Iowa Farmers for Gore, Chris Peterson, whose farm had lost 300 acres to flooding in 1993.

The vice president referred to the Bradley vote, noting "many other disasters facing farmers where you were one of a handful who didn't help the farmers," and introducing Peterson as a TV camera focused on him.

Bradley appeared unprepared for the assault. Rather than defending his vote, he argued that "this is not about the past; this is about the future. This is about what we're going to do to change the agriculture policy we've had the last eight to 10 years."

But Gore, whether Bradley likes it or not, is making it "about the past."

Steve Hildebrand, Gore's Iowa manager, says of targeting Bradley's farm relief vote: "In any campaign, you're going to research your opposition's voting record, and this was a glaring example we think voters ought to know about it."

The Gore campaign knew about it "for some time," he says, and raised it in the debate because "Al Gore had been begging Senator Bradley to debate him on agriculture issues and Bradley had refused. The debate was the first opportunity to question him on his votes."

Since the debate Saturday, Bradley has been noting that he did vote for the larger flood relief but voted against the amendment "because it was relief not just for floods, not just for farmers, but it was relief generally, and I wasn't the only senator to vote against that in the region." He noted Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who has endorsed his candidacy, as having done the same.

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