No one has ever accused Bill Bradley of being an exciting speaker. But on a recent campaign stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, he had diners at Tremont on Main, a local eatery, hanging on every word.
Maybe there's something about a big man keeping his voice low and measured. It also helped that the room was filled mostly with committed supporters. The diners, mainly older folks enjoying wide bowls of lobster bisque, didn't even seem to mind when the presidential contender said he wasn't ready to offer proposals on issues such as health care.
Now it's September and Mr. Bradley faces growing expectation that he get specific - and show he has the potential to actually wrest the Democratic nomination from Vice President Al Gore, not just give him a good tussle.
But on the eve of his "fall campaign kickoff" - a big speech tomorrow in his hometown of Crystal City, Mo., followed by a bus tour through Iowa - the former NBA star can tally his successes: the good fortune of being Mr. Gore's only challenger for the party's nomination, strong fund-raising and nearly as much cash on hand as Gore, and rising poll numbers in early primary states.
In New Hampshire, where the first primary is held, a poll released Sunday shows Bradley has closed the gap with Gore to a statistical tie, with 40 percent for Gore and 36 percent for Bradley among likely Democratic voters. Other polls show Gore with a larger - but still shrinking - lead.
"Bradley has the potential to be very successful," says Steve Salmore, a former professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and adviser to the state GOP. "Success means ... putting Gore in a position where, if he doesn't run a good campaign, he is in danger of losing."
The champion of liberals?
Bradley has also raised expectations that he could become a champion of the liberal wing of the party, which has felt somewhat out in the cold during two terms of Clinton-Gore centrism.
But again, until he develops specific proposals, it's uncertain whether Bradley can energize the activist "progressive" wing of the Democratic Party on his themes of racial harmony, children's poverty, and universal health care. He has gotten specific on campaign-finance reform, and has won plaudits from the left.
He has also won attention for being the only white candidate for president so far this year to campaign in New York's neighborhood of Harlem. His support from former basketball greats and teammates, both black and white, has added to the celebrity cachet of his campaign (and proved to be lucrative in fund-raising).
But even there, he can't rely on past glories to do much more to improve his standing against Gore. His days playing forward for the New York Knicks ended in 1977, and many voters, especially younger ones, know nothing of his past.
"Someone in Marshalltown asked if he'd been the coach of something," says Anita Dunn, his communications director. "People really don't know who he is."
And so, she says, the point of the fall campaign kickoff is for Bradley to continue to define himself and outline his campaign priorities. Specific proposals will be laid out in coming months.
But as the campaign progresses, Bradley - and all the other candidates, from both major parties - can expect to face increased scrutiny from the press and from each other.
In the small Democratic field, Bradley fills the niche of the "truth-telling outsider." Yet he served in the Senate for 18 years and, as a former member of the influential Senate Finance Committee, has close ties to Wall Street (another big plus for presidential fund-raising).
His position on issues can also be less than 100 percent pure. As a senator from New Jersey, he railed against the federal subsidy for ethanol, a corn-based fuel. Now that he's competing against Gore in the Farm Belt state of Iowa, the site of the nation's first nominating contest, Bradley now has come out in support of the ethanol subsidy.
More fundamentally, says Democratic strategist David Axelrod, "Bradley hasn't given us a rationale for his candidacy yet."
His real rationale is that "he's more worthy," says Mr. Axelrod, a Gore supporter. "That's a tough sell. People don't look at Gore and say he's a bad guy."
For voters, scandal fatigue?
But polls have consistently shown that Democratic voters are restless for change and tired of the Clinton-Gore years of scandal.
Gore's reputation suffered for his questionable fund-raising practices in the 1996 presidential campaign, and also for his unflagging support of President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal.
Bradley devotes a large part of his standard stump speech to the need to restore trust - public trust in the president, trust in political institutions, and political leaders' trust in the people. He doesn't mention Gore by name, but the implication is clear: I, Bill Bradley, am not tainted by all those messy scandals.
The question is, can he overcome the tremendous institutional advantages Gore has as a sitting vice president?
If the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire give Bradley a strong showing - particularly if they keep Gore under 50 percent of the caucus or primary vote - the Democratic establishment may pause and find it has a real nomination race on its hands.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society