Bradley sees fast-break plan falter in Iowa

Lack of flexibility, Gore ads puncture early momentum

January 21, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Bill Bradley pops lightly to his feet to address a high school assembly here, and for an instant the ex-jock's 6-foot-5-inch frame is airborne again.

The first real test of the 2000 presidential campaign, the Iowa caucuses, is only a few days away. And on this morning, at least, the one-time basketball star looks invigorated.

But his candidacy seems to have gone flat, in this state and perhaps nationally. A resurgent Vice President Al Gore appears positioned to crush Bradley in Monday's caucuses and is holding on to a huge advantage in nationwide voter surveys.

Bradley "did have a little more momentum early; it kind of peaked," says Jim Maloney, the county asses sor in Des Moines and an early Bradley backer.

Yesterday, Bradley described his mood as "upbeat." But he acknowledged that two negative campaign commercials by Gore had hurt his chances by warning voters that Bradley's election could jeopardize the solvency of Medicare.

"To a certain extent, voters might have been swayed by that," he said, while maintaining that his campaign is "making up our distance very quickly."

Bradley has invested heavily in Iowa, hoping for an early upset that would puncture the vice president's image of inevitability. He has spent far more time here than in any other state (more than 60 campaign days by Monday) and has put more ads on TV than has Gore.

But while Gore has retooled his candidacy and sharpened his performance in recent months, Bradley has done relatively little to freshen his message or generate new excitement.

Even his supporters complain that Bradley was too slow in responding to Gore's attacks on his sweeping health care proposal. Bradley's determination to stick to his game plan -- refusing to bend his strategy in response to daily developments on the campaign trail -- won wide praise last year when his candidacy was starting to take off.

Now, however, his resolve may be seen as a rigid unwillingness to adjust to the new reality of the campaign.

As recently as last month, it seemed as if Bradley had the potential to do well enough in Iowa and embarrass Gore, if not win outright. In the wake of Gore's all-out push over the past few weeks, though, the opposite seems more likely.

Weak turnout

The other day, when Bradley spoke at West High School in Iowa City, a college town where aides predict he will do well, only three voters signed up to support him. At the same time, in another part of the state, Gore was drawing one overflow crowd after another.

With recent polls showing Gore ahead by at least 20 percentage points in Iowa, Bradley has begun to discount the importance of Monday's results.

"We knew all along that Iowa is a state that rewards entrenched power," the former New Jersey senator now says. Yesterday, he openly questioned whether the new voters he is trying to draw into the caucus process will actually show up.

"Hopefully" they will, he added.

Bradley aides say no decision has been made about whether he will stick around the state long enough to comment on the results on caucus night, another sign of a low confidence level in his camp.

Less clear, however, is exactly what effect, if any, the Iowa results will have eight days later in the New Hampshire primary, where Bradley and Gore have been in a virtual dead heat. Bradley, on a campaign swing in New Hampshire this week, praised the independence of voters there.

Jim Monahan, a Bradley supporter in New Hampshire, borrows a line from Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, to illustrate the prevailing attitude in the leadoff primary state: "In Iowa, they pick corn. In New Hampshire, we pick presidents."

But the Democratic activist says a setback in Iowa could cost Bradley support from independents, who can vote in either party's primary in New Hampshire and might decide to back the Republican insurgent, Sen. John McCain, instead of Bradley.

Regardless of the result of the Feb. 1 primary, Bradley has the money to continue beyond New Hampshire, thanks to his success in matching Gore almost dollar-for-dollar in fund-raising. He says he will campaign through what he calls the "national primary" on March 7, when California, New York, Ohio, Maryland and 10 other states will vote.

"A national consensus does not get determined out of Iowa and New Hampshire," says Douglas C. Berman, Bradley's campaign chairman.

Fast start needed

Berman acknowledges, however, that Bradley needs to emerge as the "dominant national candidate" from the early March primaries. "If the result is a muddle, clearly it becomes difficult for us," he adds.

Recent polling in New Hampshire shows the vice president gaining ground there as well. The closeness of the New Hampshire race, in contrast to national surveys that put Gore more than 40 points ahead, proves that when voters get to know Bradley, he can more than hold his own with the vice president, Bradley aides say.

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