Questions about Bradley's future overshadow Democrats' last debate

After heated exchanges in N.Y., last night's act seems more like tea time

March 02, 2000|By Paul West and Jules Witcover | Paul West and Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- While expressing disappointment over his winless streak in the Democratic presidential contest, former Sen. Bill Bradley said yesterday that he has no intention of abandoning his challenge to Vice President Al Gore.

Rumors that Bradley might be quitting the race after losing badly on Tuesday in Washington, a state where he invested money and almost a week of his time, overshadowed last night's televised debate between the two Democrats.

But their 90-minute joint appearance, the ninth and possibly last of the campaign, might have been the clearest indication yet that the contest for the Democratic nomination has effectively ended.

Bradley and Gore passed up numerous opportunities to disagree on issues such as racial profiling and gun control, subjects over which they have heatedly clashed.

In contrast to last week's contentious Harlem debate, widely derided as a political food fight, the Los Angeles version seemed more like a tea party. Gore, in particular, went out of his way to stress points of agreement with his rival.

When one of the debate panelists, Jeff Greenfield of CNN, posed a question to Bradley suggesting that, short of a miracle, his candidacy had failed, Gore came to his defense by criticizing the question.

Only when pressed by another panelist, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, about the mild tone of the debate, did Bradley rouse himself to repeat his attacks on Gore's voting record as a House member in the 1980s on abortion and tax breaks for private schools such as Bob Jones University.

"I'm sorry you brought that up again," replied Gore, who said that if Bradley wanted to dredge up decades-old votes, "we can talk about [Bradley's] vote for the Reagan-Bush budget cuts" in 1982.

Yesterday morning, at a community medical center south of downtown Los Angeles, Bradley said that none of his advisers had counseled him to quit the race.

"Zero. Zero," he told reporters at a news conference added to his schedule after reports circulated that he might be pulling out.

Gore defeated Bradley by a margin of nearly 2-to-1 in Washington state, burying him by landslide proportions even among the independent voters Bradley aides once regarded as a pivotal part of his campaign. Bradley also lost to Gore in the two other contests held so far in the Democratic race, in Iowa and New Hampshire

Undaunted, Bradley has called Tuesday's big round of delegate contests in 16 states, including Maryland, the real beginning of his sprint to the Democratic presidential nomination, a remark he repeated in last night's debate.

In campaign appearances in California, the nation's most populous state, he has said the nomination will be decided here.

A new Los Angeles Times poll, released yesterday, showed Gore leading Bradley by a huge 43 percentage point margin statewide. Among likely voters in California's open primary, Bradley received 7 percent, putting him in a virtual tie with Republican also-ran Alan L. Keyes, at 4 percent, because of the poll's margin of error of 3 percentage points.

In the delegate-rich state of New York, where Bradley was expected to do well because of his years as a Knicks basketball star, the former New Jersey senator trails Gore by about 20 points in the most recent polling.

Bradley suggested yesterday that he is prepared to continue in the race not only through "Super Tuesday" but the following week as well, when 10 more state primaries, seven of them in the South, and three more state caucuses are scheduled.

Appearing upbeat in spite of his weak showing in Washington state, Bradley joked that "Mark Twain put it best when he said, `Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.' "

Bradley said he would campaign in New York, Massachusetts and Maryland in the next week, "concentrating on New York." Noting the large crowds that greeted him in Washington state, he said: "I'm still in the race, I'm feeling really good."

Asked when he would decide that he had stayed in the race too long, Bradley pointed out that only 68 of the more than 1,000 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination have been decided thus far.

"I've said all along [that] March 7 is the takeoff time. That's when we have to win some primaries, and I think that's when we're going to surprise some people," he said.

"I've said also that the 7th to the 14th is really one big primary, because it happens so fast. We've looked at that week as the week we have to take off, regardless, and I think we're on target to do that."

Concerning reports that some of his advisers had urged him to quit, he replied: "Nobody as come to me, nobody has sent an emissary at all."

Bradley's campaign has purchased five minutes of national television time on CBS tonight, immediately following "48 Hours." Aides have said Bradley would use the time to appeal directly to voters across the country about why he is best qualified to be president.

GOP debate

George W. Bush, Alan L. Keyes and John McCain (via satellite from St. Louis) will debate today from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST at the Los Angeles Times' headquarters.

The event will be moderated by Judy Woodruff and broadcast live on CNN.

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