The challengers keep to their paces as they leave field

March 10, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Bill Bradley and John McCain, partners in their advocacy of campaign finance reform and rivals for the support of independent voters, withdrew from the presidential race on the same day, but the manner of their going was markedly different.

Mr. Bradley, while getting out unconditionally, threw his "support" but not his endorsement, nor his delegates, to Vice President Al Gore. Mr. McCain merely "suspended" his campaign and settled for congratulating Gov. George W. Bush and offering "best wishes" but not his support, conspicuously noting that "he may well the next president of the United States."

Neither one projected enthusiasm for the man who beat him, but Mr. Bradley's remarks gave Mr. Gore much more hope for entering the general election with a reasonably unified party behind him than Mr. Bush could cull from Mr. McCain's tart comments.

Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain each had the same challenge in bowing out -- to do it in a way that would make clear his commitment without retracting all the critical things he said about his party opponent and bringing down the ire of idealistic supporters.

Mr. Bradley succeeded, by the simple device -- the same one he used throughout his failed campaign-of saying just what he thought. He said he was backing Mr. Gore because he feels a Democratic president will be better for the country than a Republican in the White House, and that he hopes that Mr. Gore will not repeat the "distortions and negativity" that marked the vice president's campaign against him.

Mr. McCain on the other hand failed, making clear he was not ready to join the Bush ranks, but rather was calling time out "to determine how we can best continue to ... help bring about the changes to the practices and institutions of our great democracy that are the purpose of our great campaign."

In saying he hoped "our campaign would be a force for change in the Republican Party," Mr. McCain said he believed it "set a course that will ultimately prevail in making our party as big as the country we serve." He warned in espousing reform "I will never walk away from a fight for what I know is right and just for our country."

Although Mr. Gore got the better of it in the two withdrawal statements, Mr. Bradley's was not the kind that Mr. Gore is likely to make into a television commercial. His message was clear: He was neither forgiving nor forgetting how Mr. Gore had mugged him with distortions of his Senate record and particularly his ambitious health care reform proposal. However, as a loyal Democrat he accepted the tradition that competitors unite after their primary competition for the good of the party.

Mr. Bradley thus stayed as true as he could under the circumstances to the standards he had set in his own campaign. He did not hesitate, when asked about Mr. Gore as an advocate of campaign finance reform, to repeat that he thought Mr. Gore had to come clean on his role in the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election fund raising. The vice president, he said flatly, "needs to remove that issue by opening up on what happened in 1996. I haven't changed my view on that."

Also, rather than releasing the delegates he has won, Mr. Bradley said he was holding onto them -- a move that will give them and his agenda a voice at the Democratic National Convention in August if they and he want that. With Mr. Gore now on his best behavior, complimenting Bradley as if they were brothers, it's a good bet that Mr. Bradley will be given an opportunity to speak, and that he will make the most of it to keep the flame of his "new politics" alive.

Mr. McCain, on the other hand, made no mention of his own delegates. The candidate who seemed unable to stop talking on his "Straight Talk Express" turned and walked off after his statement, ignoring shouted questions. That uncharacteristic reticence said volumes about the repair work ahead for Mr. Bush, while Mr. Gore can move forward knowing that Mr. Bradley may not love him, and may nag him on campaign reform, but at least intends to play the loyal soldier-within limits.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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