STRATHAM, N.H. -- Former Sen. Bill Bradley, declaring, "You can only take it so long," stepped up his counterattack yesterday on Vice President Al Gore, questioning whether voters can trust Gore.
"If you can't trust people to tell them the truth in a campaign," he rhetorically asked the vice president, "how are they going to trust you as president?"
Bradley, who first charged Gore with misrepresenting his views in their Manchester debate Wednesday night, continued aggressive moves to throw Gore on the defensive yesterday while reiterating his commitment to keeping his own campaign focused on his beliefs and objectives.
Supporters at a rally outside his Concord campaign headquarters cheered his remarks as he embarked on a swing to the New Hampshire seaboard, repeatedly challenging Gore's trustworthiness along the way.
Shrugs, then fires back
Gore dismissed Bradley's criticism as "phony," then fired off a new attack.
Before flying back to Washington for last night's State of the Union message, the vice president told voters in New Hampshire that Bradley's criticism was part of a pattern of behavior by his trailing opponent.
"In Iowa, in the closing days of that contest, [Bradley] attacked the voters, saying that they were puppets of entrenched power," Gore told employees at a Manchester software company.
"You may have noticed that the voters in the Iowa caucuses did not react very well to those attacks.
"Now in the closing days of this contest, he has raised another phony issue, condemning negative attacks while launching negative attacks himself.
"I don't quite understand how someone can condemn so-called negative attacks while in the next breath launching real negative attacks."
Bradley did not make the Iowa comment attributed to him by Gore, nor was there clear evidence of a voter backlash there.
Bradley did say last week that Iowa, a caucus state, favored "entrenched power," the expression he often uses to describe Gore's perks of office and his support from the Democratic establishment.
Both were major factors in Gore's Iowa victory this week.
Gore widens his lead
As for Gore's comment about Bradley lagging, a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday showed Gore with an 18-point lead over Bradley in New Hampshire, twice what the vice president's lead was at the beginning of the week.
Bradley's aggressive stance in the debate and on the stump yesterday were a major change from his posture of essentially turning the other cheek to Gore's assaults.
In Iowa, he did complain mildly that the vice president was distorting his health care reform plan, but his latest counterattacks signal a new phase and tone in his campaign.
Call for a tougher line
Advisers, including Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who is campaigning here for Bradley, urged the tough line after Bradley was caught by surprise in an Iowa debate by a question about a 1993 Senate vote described by Gore as damaging by Iowa farmers.
Bradley sidestepped that question, leaving the impression with some that the allegation was true. Only later did he offer an explanation.
Gore trounced Bradley in the Iowa caucuses, winning by roughly a 2-to-1 margin.
The experience convinced some of Bradley's advisers that he needed to hit back at Gore in New Hampshire.
Bradley's strategists acknowledged yesterday that the newly aggressive tactics will require their candidate to walk a fine line if he is to continue to project himself as a campaigner hewing to the high road.
They argued that is legitimate for him to defend himself against what he believes have been distortions of his record and campaign initiatives.
Until yesterday, the only adjustment in Bradley's strategy here was to use others to criticize Gore for what they called his distortions of Bradley's positions.
In a television ad and news conference Wednesday, the Bradley campaign introduced Niki Tsongas, widow of former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, winner of the 1992 Democratic primary here. She charged that Gore was twisting Bradley's record in the same way presidential candidate Bill Clinton had distorted her husband's positions then.
Also at the news conference was Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who said Gore had intentionally distorted Bradley's position on the 1993 farm vote.
But the indirect criticism of Gore came before Wednesday's Manchester debate, when Bradley suddenly lashed out at Gore, at one point comparing him to former President Richard M. Nixon as a deceptive politician.
`Decided I'd had it'
"Last night I decided I'd had it," he told his supporters in Concord. "I was going to call my opponent on it."
Later, at the Timberland footwear complex here, the former basketball star used the jargon of his old sport to explain his reaction.
"After absorbing months of misleading statements and misrepresentations," he said, "last night I decided, well, it's my turn. I threw an elbow."
Paul West of The Sun's national staff contributed to this article.