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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Gore in your face

Bradley finds it hard to stay high-minded in a week of cheap shots, missteps and an irregular heartbeat


Time magazine

December 13, 1999
Web posted at: 2:19 p.m. EST (1919 GMT)

If Bill Bradley ever really believed that running for President in 1999 could be a virtuous, high-minded mission--a journey to "a world of new possibilities, guided by goodness," as he likes to say--last week should have rid him of the notion once and for all. Bradley spent the week fending off cheap shots (and effective politics) from Al Gore, his rival for the Democratic nomination, and spending big in New Hampshire to keep his poll numbers from slipping. And despite Gore's onslaught, by week's end it was Bradley's campaign--that bastion of honor--that had been forced to apologize for a shrill attack pamphlet it had distributed in New Hampshire. While Bradley's advisers in New Jersey were dealing with that little fiasco and wondering how they had managed to cede Gore the moral high ground, the candidate called them from California with more sobering news. Bradley had to cut short a campaign swing and check into a hospital for treatment of atrial fibrillation (see box). His irregular heartbeat corrected itself at the hospital, sparing him the mild electric shock called cardioversion that would have been used to return it to normal. And so the candidate held a Saturday press conference in an attempt to put questions to rest. "This is just a nuisance, quite frankly," he said. "My energy level is more than adequate. The schedule is not a problem. This will have no effect whatsoever. There's absolutely nothing to be concerned about." Then he flew to Florida to hit the trail again.

Bradley's condition is common--President Bush dealt with it while in office--and in itself does not spell the end of his quest for the White House. But if last week is an indication, Bradley's campaign isn't as healthy as he is.

It was always clear that to wrest the nomination from Gore, Bradley had to do almost everything right and Gore just about everything wrong. The primary rules are rigged against the insurgent because they give the Vice President a head start of some 500 superdelegates (elected officials and party bigwigs loyal to Gore). Bradley has perhaps 20 superdelegates, according to Gore aides. (Bradley advisers wouldn't offer a figure.) And the party has forbidden states to hold winner-take-all primaries, in which a candidate with only a narrow victory margin can rake in most of a state's delegates. That makes it harder for Bradley to win big, as he must do to offset Gore's built-in delegate advantage. In a wild spree of primaries and caucuses, 30 states will vote between March 7 and 14. "Bill has to be the dominant candidate coming out of that," says Bradley campaign chairman Doug Berman. "In a muddled picture, the Vice President's entrenched power wins."

For a while, it looked as if Bradley had a good shot at being the dominant candidate. But then Gore found his bearings--not by firing staff or changing wardrobe or feigning casualness but by relentlessly attacking Bradley's policies, especially his ambitious (but flawed) plan to extend health insurance to most Americans. It was quite the spectacle--Gore, who stood beside Bill and Hillary Clinton while their health-reform plan was distorted by Republicans in 1993, was now busy distorting Bradley's, using Clinton-style "Mediscare" tactics. The Bradley plan, he said, would "shred the social safety net" by eliminating Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor. He didn't mention that, much like the Clintons, Bradley has proposed replacing the woefully inadequate Medicaid system with one that might well serve people better. Instead, Gore punished Bradley for thinking big, thundering about how he was endangering blacks, Latinos, nursing-home residents and people with HIV. And the more Gore challenged the policy (Were its subsidies generous enough to pay for decent private insurance or cover catastrophic illness?), the more Bradley's team adjusted and clarified and riffed--until the whole plan started to seem not ready for prime time and some activists began wondering if Gore might be right.

Soon he moved on to an economic critique of Bradley's plan, beginning with a wholly legitimate debating point. He said the cost of the plan, which Bradley puts at $55 billion to $65 billion a year and Gore says is much higher, would gobble up the bulk of the budget surplus, leaving little or no money for other pressing needs like shoring up Medicare. Fair enough, except that Gore has a proportionality issue. Even his advisers admit he doesn't know when to stop. Last week, with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin at his side for an endorsement event in New York, he sailed away on a tide of overheated rhetoric, linking Bradley's health plan to George W. Bush's five-year, $483 billion tax-cut proposal and calling them "huge, risky, unaffordable schemes that would raise interest rates, stall our economy and derail our prosperity." Bush and Bradley, he said, had the same philosophy: "If the economy ain't broke, let's break it."

And still he kept going, trying to hang a Walter Mondale mask on Bradley, charging (as he had been doing for almost a week) that Bradley had "proposed" raising taxes in order to pay for his health plan. Bradley had actually said, quite sensibly, that if the economy went south in the future, spending cuts or a tax increase would be necessary options--and Gore, when cornered last week, admitted that he agreed. But by then, Bradley had wasted a week with the bogus tax-increase issue clogging his message machine. As a Gore strategist chortled, "He's now on our clock."

It isn't clear that Gore's attacks are sticking--a new TIME/CNN poll shows the race in New Hampshire still a dead heat, with Bradley clinging to a tiny lead, 42% to 39%--but the strategy has thrown Bradley on the defensive, forcing him to pour more than $1 million into New Hampshire TV spots, and has given Gore his new sense of direction. Gore has always been at his best when counterpunching opponents--think Ross Perot, think Jack Kemp--and now he has happily settled into the rhythms of a middleweight club fighter. "I'm enjoying the campaign a lot more," he told TIME last week. "I'm really having a good time."

Bradley isn't having quite so much fun. "Bill's getting angry," said an adviser. "We're in a bind--Gore wants us to sink down to his level, and we're not going to do that." But they did. Bradley was determined not to lose his aura of rarefied high-mindedness--he's sure it works for him--and so he responded to Gore fitfully, rebutting in his languid way ("We've reached a sad day...when a sitting Vice President distorts a fellow Democrat's record") and having his staff send out faxes and e-mails to correct the record--by which time Gore had long since gone on to the next attack. But on Thursday, after Gore volunteers handed out flyers in New Hampshire pharmacies accusing Bradley of being in cahoots with drug companies to keep less expensive generics off the market, Bradley's coordinator for the state, Mark Longabaugh, gave in to his frustration and authorized a flyer that looked like a prescription form. It diagnosed a disease called "Gore-itis," with symptoms including "uncontrollable lying." The next morning, in an interview with TIME, Gore was lamenting that Bradley had launched an attack that was "quite astonishing and very negative and very personal." But, he sighed, "I will never engage in that kind of tactic." By then, Bradley's heart was fibrillating, though experts caution that there's no evidence the condition is caused by the sight of outrageous political posturing. Furious that his campaign had descended to Gore's level, Bradley had Berman issue an apology to Gore. That must have been more uncomfortable than the fibrillation.

"You have to have discipline to do this," Bradley told TIME in an interview before the Gore-itis imbroglio. "You don't have to have discipline to just attack and misrepresent. That's the self-indulgent way politics has been practiced in the recent decade." Gore, he said, "is running '92 and '96 again. It's not going to work... Reasonable people understand what's going on." But to paraphrase Adlai Stevenson, reasonable people won't be enough; Bradley needs a majority.

Bradley has too much in common with Stevenson, the Illinois Governor and two-time Democratic nominee who styled himself as being above politics (and arguably was) but lost in 1952 and '56. Like Stevenson and the other iconoclasts who descend from him, such as Eugene McCarthy and Paul Tsongas, Bradley has a poetic cast that hides the deepest self-regard and a reluctance to mix it up that threatens to turn him into just another noble failure. "The problem with candidates who are disdainful of the process," says Garry South, chief strategist for California Governor Gray Davis, a Gore man, "is that they are disdainful of the process. The rat-a-tat Bradley despises is what politics is. This is what it takes to run for President now." Bradley sometimes seems nostalgic for a politics that never was. American elections have always been pretty rough. The Thomas Jefferson-Aaron Burr battle of 1800 was a major slugfest, and during the 1956 Democratic primaries, Estes Kefauver accused the sainted Stevenson of Mob ties and racism. (Kefauver lost.) As a student of history, Bradley knows all that, but he's gambling that voters actually mean it this time when they say they're sick of negative campaigns. So far, the Republicans appear to be hearing the same message. Gore is the only candidate in either party who has regularly landed low blows.

Given the week he's had, Bradley has no choice but to change the subject. He'll do his best to do that on Thursday, when he is scheduled to hold a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire with the Republican insurgent, Senator John McCain. The two underdogs will shake hands and pledge that if they become the nominees, each will tell his party not to accept the huge, unregulated campaign contributions known as soft money. Their handshake is meant to recall the 1995 New Hampshire meeting between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, when the two promised to pursue campaign-finance reform--and then promptly and permanently did nothing. The day after he meets McCain, Bradley takes the stage for his second nationally televised forum with Clinton's Vice President--and this time, Bradley aides say, their man will make the case against Gore and respond to his attacks. That's a start, but here's a bolder idea. Perhaps Bradley should ask himself, What would Adlai do? And then do the exact opposite.

--With reporting by Tamala M. Edwards/Des Moines and Karen Tumulty/Washington

"You don't have to have discipline to just attack somebody and misrepresent what they're doing...there's a point where it backfires. It's not going to work."

"Broad generalities and platitudes are the essence of the old politics... He seems to have his feelings hurt because of a question about substance."

"I thought that after what happened to Bob Dole in New Hampshire in 1988, it would be a lot longer before a candidate said, 'Stop lying about my record.'"

"Reasonable people understand what's going on. It's the self-indulgent way politics has been practiced in this decade. My view is, he's miscalculated."


Cover Date: December 20, 1999

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