MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Abandoning his above-the-fray strategy in a televised debate last night, Democratic challenger Bill Bradley branded Vice President Al Gore as a liar who would have trouble being an honest president.
Bradley's reversal came as new polls show him falling further behind the vice president heading into next week's New Hampshire primary, which has become a must-win for Bradley.
"Why should we believe you will tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a candidate?" the former senator asked Gore as the Democratic and Republican candidates held back-to-back debates for 2 1/2 hours.
Risking the political capital he has gained by remaining determinedly positive up till now, Bradley repeatedly went on the offensive. Gore, who was expecting the attacks, turned each one back against Bradley, who has never been comfortable with attack politics at any point in his long career.
Styling himself the victim of a political mugging, the vice president pleaded with his opponent to drop the negative tactics.
"Look, Bill, we've had some heated disagreements," Gore said. "Let's keep it to the substance of the issues. I haven't accused you of lying. We can have a disagreement on the substance of the issues without making negative personal attacks. The people out there are tired of that."
Bradley challenged Gore to defend his reversal on the issue of abortion, noting that Gore had cast a number of anti-abortion votes when he was in the House. Gore, who maintains that he has always supported abortion rights, denied that his campaign had misrepresented his position.
The tone of the hourlong debate remained formal, almost gentlemanly. But the new intensity of the Democratic contest was evident in Bradley's lines.
"Tonight, I think you saw the contrast between the old politics and the new politics," Bradley told reporters afterward. "Al will have to go a long way to prove that what he says is true, which is that he hasn't lied in his campaign."
But it was not clear whether Bradley had helped himself by turning almost every question into an opportunity to assault the front-runner. Gore aides, in post-debate comments, suggested that Bradley had been too heavy-handed and dismissed the charges as an act of "desperation."
Gore was put on the defensive over the conduct of the campaign from the outset of the debate. Moderator Judy Woodruff challenged Gore to answer critics who say he has run a "mean-spirited" campaign that has distorted Bradley's record.
Gore responded, as he has before, by saying he had never mentioned Bradley by name in a commercial or attacked him personally.
Gore then took a swipe at Bradley for being one of the few Democrats to support the Reagan administration's drastic 1981 budget cuts.
"I don't see how you can vote for Ronald Reagan's budget cuts and then try to campaign like Robert Kennedy," Gore remarked.
Bradley responded with a historical comparison of his own.
"When Al accuses me of negative campaigning, that reminds me of the story about Richard Nixon the kind of politician who would chop down a tree and then stand on the stump and talk about conservation," he said. "It just won't fly."
At another point, Bradley responded to a Gore charge about a Bradley campaign flier that circulated briefly and was withdrawn. Bradley said that flier was like a gnat compared to Gore's steady attacks and called the vice president "the elephant of negative advertising."
Bradley said that Gore had deliberately made misleading statements throughout the campaign.
"A thousand promises and a thousand attacks -- that's what's been your campaign," Bradley said. "Attack, attack, attack every day. Quite frankly, I think the people are fed up with it."
The Democratic bout followed a 90-minute Republican debate in which Sen. John McCain, the favorite in the Republican primary battle in New Hampshire, defended himself against challenges from his rivals over abortion, taxes and campaign finance reform.
The Republican debate, the last before the primary, featured some of the sharpest exchanges of the campaign between McCain and George W. Bush, who is running ahead of the field nationally. It also contained the most bizarre back-and-forth of the race, as former State Department official Alan L. Keyes was taken to task over his lighthearted leap into an Iowa mosh pit Sunday.
McCain, whose message of campaign reform has resonated with voters here, maintained that he would be a better Republican choice than Bush to take on Gore, over the administration's alleged campaign finance abuses.
"George, you're going to have nothing to say," said McCain, referring to Bush's opposition to the McCain reform proposal. "You said that it is bad for our party. I'm always willing to believe that what's good for our country is good for our party."
Bush turned to McCain, whom he sardonically addressed as his "buddy" at one point, and replied: "You can call all kinds of names you want."