The Gore-Bradley Tip-Off

Recently we looked at the Republican hopefuls in the 2000 presidential race. A review of Democrats staring longingly at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. will be shorter, since barring another run by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, only two remain: Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

As the sitting vice president, Mr. Gore enjoys the advantages and liabilities that come with the position. He has at his disposal all the benefits of incumbency, including trips on Air Force Two to announce new programs in such coincidental locations as New Hampshire, Iowa, and California. He inherits a powerful campaign organization led by a prodigious presidential fund-raiser who can't stop running.

But a vice president can't easily distance himself from his boss, as Hubert Humphrey found out in 1968. The president controls the agenda; the veep must live with the consequences. In this case, many wonder if Gore will be tainted by the myriad scandals swirling around the administration, including his own questionable fund-raising forays in 1996.

The vice president also has a reputation as a wooden and uninspiring public speaker, an image that sharply contrasts with President Clinton's. (Those who know him well say the impression is unfair; that Gore in private comes across as a warm, witty, and caring person.)

Senator Bradley, a former professional basketball star, is much like Gore: intelligent and thoughtful, but not charismatic. In many respects, they appeal to the same moderate wing of the party, which complicates Bradley's mission.

But while Bradley trails far behind the vice president in polls, he can't be easily dismissed. He's launched an energetic campaign, has some powerful allies, and has raised serious money. He can run as an outsider; Gore has lived in Washington much of his life. Bradley's trump card is the belief in a few Democratic Party circles that Gore is unelectable.

That belief is sure to grow if the vice president continues to lag seriously behind the current Republican front-runners, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole. Given the year-and-a-half before the election, such polls have little meaning now. But they will take on new weight as the primaries approach.

The election or defeat of a vice president is often a referendum on the current administration. The public wanted four more years of Ronald Reagan and so elected George Bush. If the public wants four more years of Bill Clinton, many believe, Gore will move across the hallway to the Oval Office. Bradley would need a long three-pointer to win the nomination.

But given what Clinton has put the nation through, it's not clear Democratic voters will want more via Gore. If they don't, that could give the New Jerseyite, if not a slam-dunk, at least a clear shot at the hoop.

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