Bradley's `big ideas' fell victim to McCain's appeal, Gore's attacks

In taking the high road, he left himself vulnerable to political infighting

The Democrats

Super Tuesday

March 08, 2000|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- More than a year ago, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley embarked on a quest for the presidency in "a different way" -- vowing to run a positive campaign on a few "big ideas" that he said would elevate politics and restore public confidence in Washington.

Last night, that campaign was in shreds as Bradley absorbed another round of embarrassing defeats. What happened?

Bradley campaign insiders are unwilling to indulge publicly in post-mortems while their candidate remains in the race. But privately their comments suggest two main answers to that question: Vice President Al Gore and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

In the Iowa caucuses that kicked off the presidential season, Gore threw Bradley on the defensive with attacks on his ambitious health care reforms and Senate record, beating him decisively.

Bradley, striving to stay on the high road, failed for a long time to respond to Gore's attacks, letting various charges go unanswered and creating an impression of softness. When he finally decided to hit back, he left himself vulnerable to Gore's assertion that he wasn't seeking election "in a different way" after all.

"We ran a campaign that was consistent with who Bill Bradley was," one adviser said. "There was strength in that." Bradley knew all along he would have to respond to Gore, the adviser said, and he "finally saw what not doing it was doing to him."

Said another: "He took the blows for a long time before he finally said, `I can't take this anymore.' "

A changed equation

As for Republican McCain, his emergence and wide appeal as a declared reformer put him in sharp competition with Democrat Bradley for support from independent voters, particularly in the New Hampshire primary. McCain, in drubbing Gov. George W. Bush by 18 points there, took such a large share of the independent vote that Bradley fell 4 percentage points short of beating Gore and never recovered.

"It was the size of McCain's victory that changed the equation," another Bradley adviser said. "If he had won by two points it would have been a two-person story" on election night. The adviser said Bradley's early success had so raised expectations that he got no credit for finishing a close second to a sitting vice president.

Instead of coming out of New Hampshire like McCain as a fighting insurgent, Bradley was seen rather as a lost cause, with little opportunity to change that view. While McCain was campaigning vigorously in the Republican primaries in South Carolina and Michigan, Bradley had to endure five weeks without a primary because Democratic Party rules prohibited any further delegate-selection contests until "Super Tuesday."

Bradley fell off the political radar screen. In a desperate quest for public and news media attention, he plunged into Washington state's preferential primary or "beauty contest" in which no delegates were at stake. Even in this supposedly liberal, maverick state for Democrats, he was buried by Gore.

Inside the Bradley campaign, there has been a remarkable absence of second-guessing about the candidate's performance, because his staff bought into Bradley's central rationale for running: to elevate the process.

"We set out to make the campaign a reflection of the way he wanted to run," a high-ranking staff member said.

While there was internal discussion about the need to respond to Gore's attacks and what the Bradley campaign saw as distortions of their candidate's plans and record, the staff accepted that he was not going to attack Gore until he was ready. So Bradley was forced to walk a tightrope -- trying to stay on the high road while finally challenging Gore's honesty.

Besides Gore and McCain, another figure hurt Bradley's chances: Bill Bradley. In his intention to eschew the old deceptions and personal clashes that have become so commonplace in American politics and to treat the campaign as an educational exercise as much as combat, he let himself be badly cut up in the clinches by Gore, an experienced political brawler.

A crucial moment

If there was a defining moment in the Bradley decline, one that laid bare the perils of failing to deal with the rough-and-tumble of presidential campaigning, it occurred in the first Gore-Bradley debate in Iowa in January.

Before the debate, a Gore researcher found an old Bradley vote in the Senate against an amendment providing additional money for flood victims in Iowa and other Midwestern states. Bradley had voted for the main flood-relief bill, but appeared to be caught flat-footed when Gore revealed his vote against the amendment.

In a deft ambush, Gore had placed in the audience a farmer named Chris Peterson who had suffered severe flood losses. In raising the issue of Bradley's vote, Gore asked the farmer by name to stand up before the national television audience.

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