Primary Off-Colors

During his basketball days, Bill Bradley was never averse to grabbing a jersey or throwing an elbow when the occasion called for it. It should be no surprise he did the political equivalent in his final debate with Al Gore before the vote in New Hampshire.

Does this mean campaign 2000's much-noted gentility is over?

Perhaps, but more to the point, it means the contests are more intense as the challengers - chiefly Mr. Bradley and John McCain - reach a moment of truth. Can they keep going?

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But, thanks in part to President Clinton's indiscretions, this campaign has also focused on character. In the debate, Bradley charged Gore with misrepresenting Bradley's health-care proposal, then asked whether someone who skirts the truth on the hustings can be trusted in office.

This charge veered toward the negative, and the vice president was quick to divert the debate to the issue of whether Bradley was engaging in the "attack" strategy that repels many voters. But did Gore lie about the Bradley plan? The complexities of health-care policy are such that voters were left with no clear answer.

What's less open to debate is the tendency of voters to be turned off by campaigning they perceive as excessively negative.

It's hard to define what's excessive, though. Character, like issues, should be probed, either by voters, the press, or an opponent. Candidates who can sense (without polls or focus groups) when voters, acting as referees, will see a "foul" in a campaign may be the best example of perceptive character.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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