Bradley struggles in Iowa

January 14, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- There is a broad consensus among political professionals that Bill Bradley performed poorly in the debate with Vice President Al Gore in Des Moines last weekend. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Gore cleaned his clock.

The operative question now is whether the ripples from that performance may affect the outcome of the New Hampshire primary that comes eight days after the precinct caucuses in Iowa.

Confronted with a farmer planted in the audience by the Gore campaign, Mr. Bradley was stuck for an answer when Mr. Gore chided him for voting against a bill that would have provided federal money for the farmer and other flood victims in 1993. The vice president, Mr. Bradley said, was dwelling on the past when this campaign is about the future.

A day later the former senator from New Jersey came up with what appeared to be an effective response -- that he had indeed voted for flood relief but that he and other Democrats, including Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, had opposed this particular version.

This explanation came far too late, however, to erase the picture of Mr. Bradley clearly on the defensive when it came to farm issues. It seemed to confirm new opinion polls showing Mr. Gore 20 points ahead in Iowa even when running slightly behind here.

The Iowa effect

There is no evidence of any direct impact in New Hampshire from Mr. Bradley's weak showing in Iowa. In fact, it is almost impossible to find anyone other than a few political activists who watched the debate, which fell on a Saturday afternoon. But no primary is an island, and the result here can be heavily influenced by the perception of the results in Iowa.

If the polls are even close to accurate, the practical question about Iowa is what will be Mr. Gore's winning margin. Privately, Gore managers seem to think they need a margin of at least 10 to 15 percent to deny Mr. Bradley any significant bounce from the caucuses.

At one point, Bradley strategists had visions of pulling an upset in Iowa. That thinking was clear in the decision to spend lots of money and time in Iowa this month. Given current expectations set by the polls, a Bradley finish within 10 points there would give his campaign cause to bray about the weaknesses of the vice president.

The Iowa effect may be particularly important in this primary because of the competition between Mr. Bradley and a Republican, Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona, for the support of the independents who make up the largest single voting bloc in New Hampshire.

There is evidence that many potential voters in this group are trying to decide between the two candidates they see as outsiders, Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain, essentially without regard to party. The danger for Mr. Bradley is that he will be seen as less likely to win the Democratic primary than Mr. McCain is to win the GOP contest. In that case, independents who want to influence the outcome might decide they would be wiser to take Republican ballots.

Mr. Bradley still has 10 days to close the gap in Iowa. And there will be other debates in both Iowa and New Hampshire in which he may be able to regain the offensive he seemed to lose to Mr. Gore last weekend. His campaign is being buoyed right now by new national polls showing him stronger than Mr. Gore against either Mr. McCain or Gov. George W. Bush of Texas -- both Republicans. And in the end, that is the card Mr. Bradley must play to win.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washing ton Bureau. Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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