Bradley officially drops out of the race

Without enthusiasm, he transfers support to Gore candidacy

March 10, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WEST ORANGE, N.J. -- A journey that began optimistically Sept. 8 in the bucolic small town of Crystal City, Mo., ended dejectedly yesterday in the suburbs of New York when Bill Bradley withdrew from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and threw his support to his once-bitter foe, Vice President Al Gore.

Despite his pledge of support, the former New Jersey senator clearly felt the wounds of his bruising nomination fight with Gore. He refused to use the word "endorse" and recalled the "distortions and negativity" of Gore's attacks.

"I hope he runs a better campaign," Bradley said.

But, he said, the issues he championed -- universal access to health care, gun control, an end to child poverty and fundamental campaign finance reform -- would be addressed far more effectively by a Democrat in the White House than by a Republican.

And he vowed to keep those issues front and center in the run-up to November, in part by keeping the delegates he won during the primaries aligned with his campaign. That way, Bradley believes, he will have some influence at the Democratic convention in August.

The 56-year-old former senator said he would not be a candidate for vice president on Gore's ticket.

"We have been defeated," Bradley told a hotel ballroom packed with staff and well-wishers. "But the cause for which I ran has not been -- the cause of trying to create a new politics for this country, the cause of trying to fulfill our special promise to the nation -- that cannot be defeated by one or a hundred defeats."

Bradley did not win a single primary or caucus, despite having soared in the polls through the fall and despite raising more money than a sitting vice president. Yet Bradley proclaimed that his campaign had helped shape an agenda for the White House.

He said he had also forced Gore to aggressively champion campaign finance reform by challenging the vice president on the issue.

Gore's embrace of the issue puts him in a position to secure the White House in November by winning over the orphaned, independent-minded voters who have flocked to Republican Sen. John McCain, said Bradley's communications director, Anita Dunn.

Gore issued a statement saying that Bradley had run a "campaign based on the highest ideals" and that "I am honored to have his support."

On the buoyant day that Bradley launched his campaign, the former New York Knicks basketball player proclaimed he had three strengths on the hardwood: "I had a sense of where I was on the court; I had quick, sure hands; and I could outwork anyone."

Yet his quick, sure hands failed him when he neglected to respond to Gore's attacks on his record and his proposals. That failure was exemplified during a debate in Iowa, when the vice president called on a farmer in the audience, Chris Petersen, to stand, then asked Bradley why he, as a senator, had voted "against the disaster relief for Chris Petersen when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods."

In fact, Bradley had voted for the flood aid. What he had opposed was an amendment for further aid -- an amendment that the Clinton-Gore administration itself had opposed until the last minute. But Bradley bobbled the ball and failed to defend his record.

"The last instruction a referee gives prize fighters is protect yourself at all times," said Jacques DeGraff, director of Bradley's campaign in New York State. "You have to defend yourself."

Bradley also proved that hard work and constant practice could not overcome every disadvantage.

After his four-point loss to Gore in New Hampshire, Bradley lost the news media spotlight, despite all his efforts. Instead, the media's infatuation shifted to McCain, whose presidential candidacy had been given a lift in an appearance with Bradley that Bradley campaign aides now believe was ill-considered.

The joint event, held in support of campaign finance reform, was supposed to cement Bradley as the reform candidate. Instead, it raised McCain's profile and gave independent-minded Democrats a candidate to turn to as Bradley's campaign faltered.

Douglas Berman, Bradley's campaign manager, noted that when the media's attention shifted to McCain after New Hampshire, Bradley could not get voters to listen to his message.

"The rest of the nation used New Hampshire to tune in to the campaign, and all they heard was the Republican contest, the Republican contest, the Republican contest," Berman said.

DeGraff was more blunt. "We did not find the message that resonated with the American people," he said.

Also, the Bradley campaign failed to dent Gore's appeal to core Democratic voters, such as African-Americans, union members and abortion rights activists.

Gore's campaign had to be given credit for its "tremendous counterpunches," he added. And when Gore shook up his stumbling campaign last year, closed his Washington operation and moved his staff to Tennessee, he showed that he would be a formidable candidate -- both in the primaries and the general election.

"When they were cut and bleeding, they took a timeout and regrouped," DeGraff said. "And they won."

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