SOMEHOW - inexplicably - a comment by Bill Bradley at a recent Monitor breakfast went unnoticed. He said he has ''not ruled out'' a run for the presidency. ''I haven't ruled anything out,'' he told us, adding that he was ''not planning a candidacy.''
The towering, one-time New York Knicks player who is stepping down from the Senate has shown the same star quality in politics as he once did in basketball. A few months ago a number of influential Democrats were pushing Mr. Bradley to take on the president in the primaries. As Bradley conceded, it was ''too late'' for him to launch such a challenge. However, he said, a third-party candidacy was still open to him. ''But is there any opening?'' he asked.
''These are volatile times,'' Bradley said. At this point in the breakfast he almost seemed to be talking like a candidate. He criticized the president, but didn't lambast him. ''[The] need for racial healing is compelling,'' he said, adding that the president should use the bully pulpit ''on a regular basis'' to ease racial tensions. He said the administration wasn't dealing effectively with the ''economic transformation'' in this country, where so many people are being laid off or are in fear of losing their jobs.
''[Pat] Buchanan has his finger on the important issue (joblessness and fear of losing jobs) but has the wrong solution.'' He said he thought the answer was in ''using public power in behalf of the middle class'' and its problems. As an example, he would like to see the president push legislation that would force a company, after laying off an employee, to provide health care for his or her family for a year.
Bradley said the possibility of a third-party candidacy was open to him ''but fraught with difficulties - mainly money.'' So what was I hearing from this personable fellow who is viewed by many Democrats as someone best positioned - ideologically and politically - to carry forward the liberal cause in the upcoming presidential election? Bradley is more than toying with the idea of getting in - he's eager to get out on the floor and shoot at the basket. He's pushed, it seems to me, by the best of political impulses: He thinks he has answers for the nation's problems and believes he could do something about fixing them.
Let's see how a Bradley presidential bid might fare. Say he's a third-party candidate. Obviously, he would take away a lot of support from President Clinton, probably enough to sink him in such a race. But could Bradley then beat the Republican candidate? If that candidate is Buchanan, Bradley would become president. Lots of moderate Republicans would eagerly leave Buchanan, unable to stomach his anti-immigration, anti-imports, and anti-abortion positions. And where would they go? More likely to Bradley, whose personal morality has never been questioned, than to Mr. Clinton.
But what if the GOP nominee is Bob Dole or Lamar Alexander, the other two of the ''big three'' now dominating the Republican primaries? Then the likelihood is that a Bradley candidacy would help to defeat Clinton and elect either Dole or Alexander. At the breakfast, Bradley mentioned the imponderable element in the race for president - what was Ross Perot going to do? Several days later I listened intently to Perot as he was being interviewed on the evening of Buchanan's win in New Hampshire.
But I found no clues to the Texan's plans. He's obviously going to march his followers behind some candidate. Could he, himself, be that candidate? That would certainly muddy up everything once again. But I can visualize a four-man race in which Bradley would win. If they debated, no one would look more presidential.