WASHINGTON — If Vice President Al Gore thought he could walk to the Democratic nomination for president in 2000 without breaking into a sweat, he should think again. The club of contenders has grown, and it's expected to increase again by the end of the month.
Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's announcement that he's taking the first step toward running for president adds a thoughtful, serious voice to the mix - and, as a former New York Knicks star, a tinge of celebrity.
In all, at least seven Democrats are preparing to run for nomination or they're thinking hard about it. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska plans to announce his presidential intentions next week.
Still, Mr. Gore remains the prohibitive favorite to win his party's nomination: As a two-term vice president under a popular president, he has automatic media attention, a base of support, and ready access to the party's big-money donors.
For Gore's opponents, the calculation has to be that they want to be ready to take over the front-runner mantle if the vice president stumbles or if the Clinton administration comes to some calamitous ending, analysts say. "Gore has worked the Democratic base with good effect, and essentially championed the same kinds of issues, albeit with a different emphasis from Bradley," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at The American University here. "It would seem that an implosion of the Gore campaign would be part of the scenario."
Just last week, Attorney General Janet Reno decided not to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Gore's fund-raising practices in the 1996 campaign. But the stream of scandals that's dogged the Clinton administration can't help but rub off somewhat on Gore.
Gore's biggest liability may be his less-than scintillating style on the stump.
But Mr. Bradley, by his own acknowledgment, is every bit as wooden. "My ability as a public speaker was comparable to the rhetorical skills of an inmate of Madame Tussaud's wax museum," he wrote in his 1996 political memoir, "Time Present, Time Past."
So Bradley, an 18-year senator who has always fashioned himself as an above-the-fray Washington outsider, may have a hard time coming across as the outside-the-Beltway maverick, in the Ross Perot style.
Bradley may be more comparable to the late Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, who developed a bit of a cult-following for his sober, intellectual approach during his presidential run.
In Bradley's announcement Friday that he's forming a "presidential exploratory committee" to start raising money for a campaign, he avoided going after Gore head-on. "This is not about Vice President Gore and me," he said. "This is about telling people what I believe, going out and talking to people, as I have been doing for 30 years."
During his political career, Bradley has focused on taxes, the environment, race issues, and education. In his announcement speech, the former Rhodes scholar spoke of the need to bring America to its full potential, noting problems of child poverty and the millions of Americans lacking health insurance.
Impact on Gore
But there remains a lingering question of why a loyal Democrat, who certainly wants to hold onto the White House after 2000, would go against Gore, the clear front-runner. In recent decades, when the Democrats have held the White House, messy primary fights have only spelled disaster, helping the Republicans to victory.
"You have to ask yourself the marketing question: Is there a market out there for what Bradley is offering, and is the product he's presenting sufficiently different to gain a popular following?" says Ross Baker, a political analyst at New Jersey's Rutgers University and a longtime Bradley watcher.
Bradley does have devoted followers around the country, Mr. Baker adds, recalling that the first time he met the politician was not in his electoral base of New Jersey but in southern California, where Bradley was fundraising.
"There's definitely a Bradley network in any big city in America," Baker says. "The question is: Are [the networks] numerous enough, are they affluent enough, can they be activated in a timely fashion?"
The fund-raising question looms especially large. Experts say Bradley needs to raise $15 million to $20 million in the next year to mount a credible campaign. All of Gore's challengers face the same issue. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, has already launched his presidential exploratory committee, but represents an even longer-shot than Bradley.
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, has long been thinking of challenging Gore, but some colleagues think he may stick with the House in the hopes of becoming Speaker after the next election.
The liberal Rev. Jesse Jackson, of Illinois, is also thinking of running for president again. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts says he'll announce whether he's running next month.