How Bill Bradley faded from the game

His Democratic bid has foundered on tactical missteps and crossovers to McCain.

This fall Thomas Keefe became "absolutely enthralled" as he watched Bill Bradley energize a packed conference room of seemingly complacent students with his vision for the future. Today the liberal Democratic activist from Albany still supports Mr. Bradley, but he's far from enthusiastic.

And his reasons are telling in understanding what went wrong with the insurgent's once-buoyant campaign. "I'm not hearing much about Bradley's vision. I'm hearing nitpicking about Gore's record when he was a congressmen from Tennessee," says Mr. Keefe. "That's what's sort of deflated me, personally."

All across delegate-rich New York, the former New Jersey senator and Knicks superstar has fumbled away his home-court advantage with voters like Keefe. Having come from behind over the summer to pull even with Vice President Al Gore in the fall, Bradley now trails in the polls by as much as 26 points as the March 7 primary approaches. It's a pattern that's repeated itself in key primaries, from New Hampshire to Washington State, where he spent all of last week gambling on a win, but lost by two-to-one to Mr. Gore on Tuesday.

As of this writing, his spokesman says he will stay in the race. But few pundits think he can bounce back, even on his home turf in New York. "If he doesn't, he's done for. It's over," says Maurice Carroll, director of the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn.

Bradley's campaign suffered from a series of classic mistakes. Many were self-inflicted, like his early failure to respond to Gore's attacks on his healthcare proposal. Instead of directly addressing them on the stump, Bradley's campaign sent the media detailed analyses disputing Gore's charges.

The media took note, but wouldn't do Bradley's dirty work for him. He kept waiting, trying to stay on the high road he'd intentionally set out on as a way to create a new kind of politics.

But as Gore's assaults continued, it was clear they got under Bradley's skin, a fatal flaw in politics. Then when Bradley did hit back, his attacks on Gore's tactics and 20-year-old record were perceived by many to be overbearing and unfair. To Keefe, they were simply inconsequential.

Pundits say that cost Bradley dearly, particularly since he started out pitching himself as a new kind of politician. "He started throwing grenades and that took a little bit of the charm off of the earlier race," says Lee Miringoff, a pollster at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

And many of those attacks backfired. Shortly after condemning Gore for his anti-abortion voting record 20 years ago in Congress, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, a leading abortion-rights group, endorsed Gore. Soon after he attacked the vice president's environmental record, the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters here in New York endorsed Gore.

That made a big difference for some wavering voters, like Gail Averill of Yonkers, N.Y., who came to hear the vice president speak in Dobbs Ferry, with the mighty Hudson River rolling behind him.

"Urban land conservation is my particular interest, and I like the idea that he's thinking of earmarking a billion dollars for that purpose," she says.

But Bradley also suffered from some bad timing, from the breaking news of his irregular heartbeat on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, to the stunning rise of upstart Sen. John McCain.

With his energy and charisma, McCain grabbed the insurgent's banner from the laid-back Bradley, sapping the momentum and press coverage just as Bradley's campaign was faltering. "McCain's main triumph might be knocking off the Democratic reformer. He absolutely buried him," says Mr. Carroll.

But some believe much of Bradley's support was always shallow. In upstate New York, Democratic activist Helen DesFosses says Gore had signed up the key Democratic players long ago. "There were waves of support for Bradley, particularly among students, university faculty, and liberal Democrats, but the solid ocean remained for Gore."

Those waves also peaked fairly early in the campaign, and Bradley was never able to regain the momentum. He ran as a populist, but was soon portrayed as a savvier fund-raiser than Gore. He positioned himself as the reformer with the more expansive social vision for the country, but in reality, many of his positions from trade to taxes, were similar to Gore's. And then there were the perks and privileges of Gore's office. For the last eight years, the Clinton administration made sure the still economically troubled upstate area received plenty of federal grants to encourage development. And each one came with Gore's name stamped on it, if only indirectly.

But Keefe is still drawn to Bradley's more liberal social vision. And if he could give him any advice now, it would be: "Stop giving me a hard time. Talk about what turned me on about you in the first place, which was your vision of the future, not your vision of Al Gore's past."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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