Bradley struggles for media's eye

Eclipsed by McCain's glow, Democrat turns to star power, stunts

February 12, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Eclipsed by the Republican contest and struggling for attention, Bill Bradley has turned to star power and stunts to try to resurrect his flagging campaign, while his rival for the Democrat nomination, Vice President Al Gore, has been content to sit on his lead.

From an appearance this week in South Carolina to denounce the Confederate flag to a new ad featuring basketball legend Michael Jordan, Bradley is courting the media's attention. Only through more publicity can the former New Jersey senator hope to reinvigorate the insurgent image that once had the vice president on his heels.

Sen. John McCain's maverick appeal is threatening to smother Bradley's prospects. The Arizona Republican is absorbing not only the news media's attention but, in several states, the backing of independents and Democrats who might otherwise vote for Bradley.

In New Hampshire, 65 percent of the ballots cast were in the Republican contest, though the state is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, a troubling sign for Bradley.

With independents bolting to McCain, Gore edged Bradley in New Hampshire after having trounced him in Iowa. Afterward, the news media treated the Republican campaign as the only real race left.

"McCain, since New Hampshire, has been dominating the news, and that has really hurt Bradley, because he's got to get attention to make headway against Gore," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat and prominent Bradley supporter. "New Hampshire has had a real impact. When all the media analysts say Gore's got it won, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Gore, too, has suffered from the attention to McCain. After the vice president made a swing through the Detroit area, brief articles appeared inside the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. Both newspapers ran McCain articles prominently on their front pages.

TV appearances

Seeking to drum up attention, Gore appeared Thursday on "The Tonight Show." But his jousting with Jay Leno received far less attention than did Hillary Rodham Clinton's appearance on David Letterman's show Jan. 12. During McCain's appearance on "Tonight" last week, he was greeted with confetti and a hero's welcome.

"The McCain phenomenon has eliminated everyone else's free media," said Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, who is studying the television news coverage of the 2000 campaign. "I don't think either Bradley or Gore is able to break through. These guys could stand on their heads, and the story would be McCain."

For Gore, who will hold a campaign event in Baltimore Tuesday, the hubbub over McCain has its advantages. After Gore's New Hampshire victory Feb. 1, the media largely abandoned the Democratic contest. The vice president's triumph was left as a final image in Democratic voters' minds until the party's next primaries, more than a month later, on March 7.

Looked at that way, Gore allies say, Bradley's troubles stem from Gore's strength, not McCain's.

"If I was advising Bradley, the advice would have been, you have to win New Hampshire," said Bob Mulholland, a California member of the Democratic National Committee and a Gore supporter.

The two largest prizes in the Democratic contest will be California, where Gore led Bradley 54 percent to 13 percent among likely Democratic voters in a poll released this week, and New York, where Gore holds a poll lead of 56 percent to 32 percent.

Some Democratic strategists and Gore advisers say the vice president can sit on his lead and run out the clock until the 15 Democratic primaries and caucuses on March 7. (The Maryland primary is among them.)

"Gore, to use another one of those strained basketball metaphors, can go into four corners here," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant not affiliated with either campaign. "He doesn't have to pick up the pace."

Bradley aides detect just such a tactic in the current tiff over debates. When Gore was struggling, he challenged the former New Jersey senator to jettison his campaign ads and debate him twice a week. Now that Bradley has proposed five debates through March 5, Gore has raised objections.

"They're clearly concerned about what he might say if they let him talk," Anita Dunn, Bradley's communications director, said of the Gore campaign. "It's absolutely four corners."

Bradley does not have the luxury of time, Carrick said. He must re-create the buzz that last year propelled him onto the cover of Time magazine, filled his campaign fund and thrust him into contention with a sitting vice president. The Jordan ad is the most recent effort to generate excitement behind the campaign.

Injecting himself into the Republican contest, Bradley went to media-saturated South Carolina Tuesday to argue that the Confederate flag should be removed from the Statehouse and to chide McCain and George W. Bush for dismissing the issue as something South Carolinians should decide.

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