The Bill Bradley effect, four years later

Insurgents: What the former senator almost did to Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 New Hampshire presidential primary may have boosted Howard Dean.

January 11, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

WHEN Bill Bradley endorsed Howard Dean last week in the Democratic presidential primary, the reaction was ho-hum - the endorsement had been expected, considering that both men appealed to similar voters.

Largely overlooked was one truth of this year's astonishing Democratic primary race: that Bradley gave a big boost to Dean's insurgent bid long before his formal endorsement. By coming much closer than many people realize to pulling off an upset against Al Gore four years ago, Bradley, the former New Jersey senator, might have set the stage for Dean's more successful long-shot campaign this year.

Bradley supporters in 2000 "were just so frustrated," said Arnie Arnesen, a liberal talk-radio host in New Hampshire. "And because they were with Bradley, you don't have to be the anointed [candidate] to impress them."

It is easy to forget how close Bradley, the former New Jersey senator, came to derailing Gore's march to the nomination four years ago. Despite Gore's huge edge as the sitting vice president, Bradley finished just 4 percentage points - 6,000 votes - behind him in the New Hampshire primary.

For many Bradley supporters, the near success of their insurgent challenge of the Democratic establishment left deep disappointment. A sense of unfinished business hung over the windowless ballroom in Los Angeles in August 2000 where Bradley, in a sideshow to the Democratic convention nominating Gore, bid farewell to his supporters.

One image stands out from that meeting: a tall, 38-year-old woman in a long dress, a free-lance marketing consultant from Jacksonville, Fla., by the name of Tricia S. Wilhelm, standing alone in the back of the room and quietly weeping.

Asked about her upset, Wilhelm said she couldn't let go of the hopes of an underdog campaign that looked for a while like it might succeed.

Now, Democrats like her - their appetite for insurgency whetted but unsated - are getting another chance.

Certainly, there are major differences between Howard Dean, the pugnacious former governor of Vermont now leading in the polls, and the often-listless Bradley. And the political landscape has changed drastically since 2000 thanks to 9/11, growing Democratic antipathy toward Bush, and the war in Iraq.

But for those involved in the 2000 primary, similarities between the Bradley and Dean are abundant. Like Bradley, Dean has a campaign that has attracted young people and other new voters. Like Bradley, he has won over crowds with an unvarnished style and a mix of high-toned and populist rhetoric.

Most notably, like Bradley, who presented himself as an outsider despite his years as a senator, Dean has capitalized on exasperation with establishment Democrats in Washington.

"There are lots of parallels," said David Carney, a Republican political consultant in New Hampshire. "It's inside Washington vs. outside Washington."

So far, the biggest difference between Dean and Bradley has been the degree of their success. Bradley briefly led Gore in the polls before the New Hampshire primary but slipped after failing to fight back against Gore's strident attacks on his health care plan and losing some voters to the Republican insurgent, Sen. John McCain.

Dean has been far more aggressive in defending against his critics and maintains a large lead over rivals in New Hampshire polls, though his support may be ebbing elsewhere. Bradley gave a nod to Dean's ability to ride the same wave to greater heights in his endorsement last week: "He's tapped into the same wonderful idealism that I saw in the eyes of Americans in 2000, and he has nourished it into a powerful force."

But to dismiss Bradley's 2000 campaign only as a failed precursor to Dean's more successful challenge would be to make the same mistake many Democrats made in 2000 - and to miss part of Dean's appeal in 2004.

Bradley's 48 percent in New Hampshire signaled voters' dissatisfactions with Gore and the D.C. establishment, but the warning was ignored. In the past, close second-places in New Hampshire achieved by underdogs like Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 were hailed as moral victories.

But Bradley's near-upset of Gore was lost amid the hoopla surrounding McCain's trouncing of Bush in the Republican primary. For insurgent-minded voters, this proved unlucky. McCain's challenge would be quashed by the GOP machine, but not before taking attention away from Bradley, who might have stood a better chance in a party more open to underdogs.

Bradley's campaign sputtered, despite his supporters' claims that he would fare better than Gore in the general election because of his appeal among independents and men and his lack of baggage from President Bill Clinton.

That fall, of course, Gore lost a contested election to Bush. The election was decided partly by Bush's victory in New Hampshire - the state that had earlier rejected Bush in the primary, but had only narrowly sided with Gore.

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