Gore, Bradley largely avoid conflict in California debate
Forum may have been last for the two Democratic rivals
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley took the occasional polemic swing at each other Wednesday night in a key Democratic presidential debate here, the last scheduled between the two before next Tuesday's monolithic 'Super Tuesday' national primary -- a voting day in which the state of California is destined to play a defining role for both major parties.
Vice President Al Gore
But the two saved their hesitant-at-best combat for the last 10 to 15 minutes of their nationally televised 90-minute affair, and only seemed willing to go at each other after being prompted to do so by one of the debate's panelists.
So great may California's role in the Democratic nomination be, that a loss here may spell the end for the long, spirited campaign of Bill Bradley.
Wednesday's debate, co-sponsored by CNN and the Los Angeles Times at the newspaper's sprawling downtown facilities, was also the last candidate forum scheduled between Gore and Bradley, at least for the foreseeable future.
The bulk of the debate was marked for the most part by comity and partisan agreement, as the two Democratic hopefuls replied to questions on core party issues such as gun control, abortion, racial profiling and whether the "far right" has gone too far.
Instead of taking the vice president to task -- as he has done in previous debates -- a surprisingly docile Bradley initially appeared to shadow Gore as the vice president outlined initiatives he would support if elected president.
Gore, in turn, greeted many of Bradley's responses by saying, "I agree with that statement" many times throughout the debate.
The bitterness and the rancor of the debate held early last week at Harlem's Apollo Theatre seemed to have been all but buried and forgotten.
But flashbacks to the arguments at the Apollo were on tap when panelist Ron Brownstein of the Times challenged Bradley to exhume some of the accusations he made against Gore a week ago -- namely, that Gore held a conservative voting record as a member of the House and Senate in matters of abortion and gun use and ownership.
Former Sen. Bill Bradley
"What I was saying," Bradley began, "was that if you run for president, your public record is important." The former professional basketball player added that Gore had an "84 percent right to life" record as a member of Congress, and that he was a friend to the National Rifle Association.
Nonetheless, he insisted, that was all in the past.
"He has evolved," Bradley said. "I'm glad he has evolved."
In a matter of moments, though, Bradley returned to accusations made last week in New York that Gore had voted numerous times to allow schools such as South Carolina lightning rod Bob Jones University to retain federal tax-exempt status, despite controversial teachings and espoused views.
"I disposed of that in the last debate by pointing out that Bob Jones University does not have tax-exempt status because of the law I voted for," a suddenly agitated Gore snapped. "I was voting against quotas."
"The underlying law I supported took away tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University," Gore continued. "Bob Jones University discriminates ... in some of the most intemperate ways you can imagine."
Bob Jones and the subject of alleged religious intolerance popped up throughout the Democratic debate Wednesday. For openers, Gore and Bradley were encouraged to take their own shots at the religious right, much as Republican candidate John McCain did in Virginia Beach on Monday.
"I think that the far right has gone too far, time after time after time on social issues and has tried to dominate the debate in this country," Bradley said. "I would be very emphatic in saying that religion should not be a part of politics."
"I thought that Sen. McCain's speech made a very powerful point, and I agree with him." Gore said. "But I think his speech illustrated that the Republican party today is in the midst of an identity crisis. They're trying to figure out who they are."
The debate format allowed questions from the audience -- a group of undecided Democrats -- the Internet and a panel of journalists. The event was moderated by CNN's Bernard Shaw.
Touching on the issue of abortion, the candidates were asked about the criteria they would use to select Supreme Court nominees. The next president is expected to appoint up to three such justices.
Both Gore and Bradley concurred that the "Constitution is a living and breathing document," as Gore put it.
Bradley called Supreme Court appointments "the most lasting contribution that a president ever makes. ... Therefore I feel it is imperative that the president search to find people of integrity ... not someone who's locked into a rigid interpretation of the constitution, someone who sees the law as something that lives and breathes."
"I think that's a very fine statement," Gore chimed, as he did many times throughout the evening. The vice president pointed out that Kate Michelman, the head of the National Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League, was in the audience. "Both Gov. Bush and Sen. McCain are as anti-choice as you can get," he said. NARAL recently endorsed Gore over Bradley.
The issue of the skyrocketing cost of gasoline and home heating oil was also discussed. Bradley said supported releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, "but more importantly we need to go to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, countries we defended in the Gulf War, and tell them to increase their oil production."
Noting that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has just completed a tour of the Middle East, Gore said: "Frankly we can get much more done on this the less we talk about it in public. One thing we haven't done is take the Strategic Petroleum Reserve off the table ... but we also need to get busy and develop more energy-efficient fuels."
Play for Golden State support
California voters will vote on Proposition 22 in November, a highly controversial referendum that only recognizes marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Questioned about the spirit and intent of the proposition, Gore emphatically said he opposed the initiative and affirmed his support for domestic partnership benefits. "Right now, under current California law, only a marriage between a man and a woman are recognized."
"I think it's time to just leave people alone because of the way God made them, and stop the discrimination," Gore said.
Stating that he also opposed the proposition, but supports domestic partnership benefits, Bradley said: "Gays and lesbians are no different than the rest of us. We have to respect them and accord them the dignity that every person in this room deserves."
When asked about racial profiling, Gore asserted that the practice was "bad policing," adding that the Justice Department is currently collecting information on whether or not the practice is common throughout the country.
"I think it is. I want to be tough on crime. I want to be tough on discrimination too," Gore said.
Remarking on the case of Amadou Diallo, a West African man who was shot by New York police 19 times as he reached for his wallet, Bradley said: "That was a tragedy but what it said to me was that the real tragedy was how deeply racial profiling had seeped into the police department."
"This is the civil rights issue of our time," Bradley said. "It is no longer blocking schools. It is having the justice department in this country finally providing equal justice for all."
In a turnabout-is-fair-play move, CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield asked both candidates why they have been so quick to criticize the Republican presidential candidates for not condemning bigots in their own party, when both Gore and Bradley have not condemned inflammatory language used by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Sharpton, a figure in last week's debate in Harlem, has used highly inflammatory language to describe whites, and defended Tawana Brawley, an African-American teen who had claimed she was raped by six white law enforcement officers. That charge was later found to be false.
"I do condemn the language that he used," Gore said. "But in America we believe in redemption."
"Yes, I went to the House of Justice in Harlem, last summer to a community meeting that Rev. Sharpton invited me to attend," Bradley said, adding that the last Democratic presidential candidate who went to Harlem was Robert Kennedy in 1968.
"I went to hear the concerns first hand of the 600 who came there to meet me. That was a legitimate thing to do. We have to allow people the right to grow, we have to allow people the right to evolve," Bradley insisted. "The real question here is how do the voiceless get a voice," he added. "It sometimes takes someone that rubs a part of the population the wrong way."
The velocity of the speculation surrounding Bradley's future as a presidential candidate has increased tenfold since Bradley lost Tuesday's non-binding Democratic Primary in Washington state. He has yet to win one voting contest against Gore this election season.
Bradley said he was not prepared to concede defeat, arguing that the Democratic delegate count was now "41 to 27," and only 250,000 people had voted in Democratic contests thus far this year.
"Eight million people will vote next Tuesday," Bradley said. "You have to understand why I am in this, I am in this to change the political process."
Gore, for his part, came to the podium Wednesday night with a newly minted endorsement: that of Rev Jesse Jackson. California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante -- the nation's highest ranking elected Latino official -- also endorsed Gore, saying he had "the love of California after visiting here 70 times."
Meanwhile, state Sen. Martha Escutia told reporters she supported Bradley, adding that the proof of Bradley's legitimacy as a candidate could be found in Gore's responses to Bradley's statements.
"All I heard Gore say was 'I agree, I agree, I agree,'" Escutia said.