Slipping into a ditch in New Hampshire

February 02, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The Democratic presidential campaign, in which Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley both started by vowing to take the high road and stay on it, wound up in a ditch in the New Hampshire primary.

Actually, the vice president had already slipped off that road in Iowa. He misrepresented fellow-Democrat Bradley's health-care proposal there by saying Bradley was abandoning the elderly by eliminating Medicaid -- without reporting that Mr. Bradley's plan called for something better to replace it.

Mr. Gore in Iowa also resurrected a Bradley Senate vote against a disaster relief amendment -- without noting that the former senator had voted for the relief bill itself. Mr. Bradley basically turned the other cheek to these allegations and was walloped in the Iowa caucuses.

But they so angered and frustrated him that in New Hampshire he finally departed from his pledge to stick to talking about his own beliefs and proposals and say little or nothing about his opponent.

His pointed charges in their debate here that Mr. Gore had intentionally misrepresented his views came after advisers had urged him to call the vice president on his tactics. They complained that Mr. Bradley was emulating 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, who had learned the hard way the political price of not hitting back.

Mr. Gore at first tried to climb back onto the high road, playing the injured party and pointedly asking the debate audience which of them was engaging in negative campaigning now. Encouraging a voter backlash against Mr. Bradley, the vice president self-righteously noted that he had never run an ad using Mr. Bradley's name or picture. He didn't have to. His fictional presentations of Mr. Bradley's record and campaign proposals were doing the job well enough.

Further frustrated, Mr. Bradley in the last days here decided against his better inclinations to give Mr. Gore a taste of his own medicine. He dusted off some Gore statements and votes of more than 10 years earlier against the federal funding of abortions to challenge his declaration that he had always been for abortion rights.

Mr. Bradley leveled the charge in the context of a broader accusation--that a candidate who did not tell the truth on the campaign trail could not be trusted to tell the truth as president. Mr. Bradley sought to bring the argument back to his basic campaign pitch -- that he offered "a new kind of politics" based on respect for the voters and the integrity of the candidate.

In the process, however, Mr. Bradley finally resorted to a touch of the old politics himself.

He injected the issue of Mr. Gore's excessive fund-raising practices in the 1996 campaign, marked by his celebrated attendance at a money event at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, which he famously tried to justify as there being "no governing legal authority" to bar it.

Mr. Gore still played the innocent party. "Why would Senator Bradley break his promise to run a different kind of campaign and launch divisive, manipulative attacks?" the master manipulator asked. But Mr. Bradley's new aggressiveness in the final days persuaded Mr. Gore to get off his high horse and resume attacking him. Among other things, he repeated another inaccurate charge that Mr. Bradley, now championing campaign finance reform, had never done so when he was in the Senate. And so it went.

If there was much hope in Democratic ranks that after the primaries are over Gore and Bradley might wind up on the party's ticket together, it very likely was buried in the wintry snows of New Hampshire. You didn't hear the vice president in the closing days here referring to his opponent as "a good man with a bad plan," as he had earlier. And Mr. Bradley remained conspicuously irate at Mr. Gore.

The Democratic contest now moves to California, New York, Maryland and eight other state primaries on Super Tuesday, March 7, with a diminished prospect that either candidate will limit himself to accentuating the positive about where he wants to take the country.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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