NEW YORK -- To a chorus of boos, shouts and cheers at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Bill Bradley and Al Gore engaged in the most brutal presidential debate of the year, with Bradley attacking the vice president as a "conservative Democrat" and Gore describing his opponent as a "desperate" candidate intent on "tearing down" his fellow Democrat.
The two men drew their swords almost as soon as the session began and turned almost every question into an attack. It was politics as spectacle, produced in an 87-year-old theater that is better known for the music of Charlie Parker and James Brown than for debates between men seeking to be president.
"What you see is an elaborate, what I call Gore-dance," Bradley said, mocking his opponent when the subject turned to the two men's position on registering handguns. "It's a dance to avoid facing up to your conservative record on guns."
"By all means, Bill, get the negativity off your chest, but when you return, let's face the real problems facing this country," Gore responded. Turning to the crowd, Gore described his opponent as someone who "questions the character of people who disagree with him" and "confuses disagreement with not being a good person."
"Senator Bradley, a couple of days ago, your campaign said that you wanted to get some things off your chest. Well, since then you've made personal attack after personal attack," Gore said. "The problem is these attacks don't solve any problems. They do divide us as Democrats."
The debate, sponsored by Time magazine and CNN, repeatedly seemed on the verge of running out of control.
"Time, time, time," the moderator, CNN's Bernard Shaw, said repeatedly as Gore, in particular, tried to respond to Bradley, who was far more aggressive than in earlier debates. At another point, shouts from an audience member, followed by the shouts of other members of the audience trying to quiet him, left the two candidates speechless.
Bradley repeatedly challenged Gore for voting, as a member of Congress in 1981, to overturn an Internal Revenue Service ruling that would have denied tax-exempt status to private schools whose racial makeup did not reflect the community where they were located.
As Gore tried to brush off the challenge, Bradley responded by attempting to hand Gore a sheaf of papers that he said included the bills. Gore ignored his opponent, leaving Bradley holding the stack of papers.
Gore responded by attacking Bradley for voting in 1995 against legislation to provide more broadcast franchises to minority owners of television stations.
The debate, their first in a month, came at a critical time for Bradley, whose campaign nationally -- and in New York, where he had once been seen as posing a powerful challenge to Gore -- has seemed increasingly adrift. Bradley's supporters viewed last night's session as a chance, possibly one of his last, to put his campaign back on track.
The debate had barely begun when the candidates began to snipe at each other with unusual ferocity. The first question, posed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, focused on what each candidate would do to ban racial profiling and prevent police brutality while keeping crime low.
Bradley repeated an exhortation, asking why Gore did not stroll down the hall to ask President Clinton to immediately issue an executive order banning racial profiling. Gore said work had begun to move in that direction. But he issued the first of numerous one-line zingers by firing back: "You know, racial profiling practically began in New Jersey, senator."
The nastiness permeated the next few minutes, on issues ranging from possible reparations for slavery, to health care, to technology and education for blacks. Several times, Gore criticized Bradley for failing to support legislation that would have expanded the number of broadcasting outlets owned by blacks and other minorities.
On issues of particular importance to minority voters, the two candidates clashed even more bitterly.
Bradley accused Gore of seeking to end federal affirmative action, and he was sharply critical of Gore's vote to preserve the tax-exempt status of schools such as Bob Jones University, pulling out copies of bills and testimonials demonstrating the candidates' differing positions. Bradley tried to offer the papers to Gore, thrusting them like a frustrated student.
"You have to face up to this if you're going to be a strong leader," Bradley said.
Within minutes, Bradley also began to attack Gore for what he called a conservative record as a congressman on issues from tobacco to gun control.
Clinton remains hugely popular with blacks in New York, as in the rest of the country, and Gore has closely linked himself to the president, particularly when appearing before black audiences.
Gore has the support of most of the major black figures in the state, including Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem; H. Carl McCall, the state's controller and highest elected black official; David N. Dinkins, a former New York City mayor; and Floyd B. Flake, a Queens minister and former congressman who endorsed Gore from his pulpit at Sunday services a week ago.
Bradley has made race one of the touchstones of his campaign. His first major campaign speech, in Manhattan last April, was devoted to the subject of racial discord.