Can Bradley really topple Gore?

His sudden rise may signal a public desire for a new face, but the vice

Al Gore, the underdog?

That's how the vice president is now positioning himself in New Hampshire, the first primary state, after a series of polls show him in a dead heat with Bill Bradley, his only rival for the Democratic nomination.

History is not on Mr. Gore's side. Vice presidents, shackled with the unglamorous task of being another man's No. 2, have typically failed to succeed their bosses. America's ever-shortening attention span may be fueling demand for a fresh face.

Indeed, many signs point to trouble for Gore: Mr. Bradley is raising enough money to do battle beyond New Hampshire. Though Gore is raising more than Bradley, he's also spending more. High-profile endorsements for Bradley - see Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan - add to that sheen of possibility.

"It could end up being a tough fight," says a Democratic Party strategist.

Still, there are powerful reasons that Gore remains the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination.

First, the vice president has the support of most of the Democratic Party's top elected officials. The point is not that voters will necessarily follow these officials' lead - especially as fewer voters feel any sense of strong party loyalty. Rather, these officials will attend the Democratic convention as "superdelegates," and most can be counted on to back Gore. Of the 2,168 delegates needed to win the nomination, 800 are superdelegates.

Second, Gore can count on the South to shore him up, even if he underperforms in New Hampshire and Iowa, whose nominating caucuses in late January will be the first official test of candidate strength. The South represents the single largest voting region in the country - accounting for one-third of convention delegates - and it is Gore's base of strength. Polls show Gore doing better against Bradley in the South than in other parts of the country.

"In '92, Clinton lost New Hampshire but won in the South," says David Bositis, an expert on Southern voting patterns at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "I can see the same thing happening to Gore."

Mr. Bositis also sees Gore doing well with the African-American community - and not just because of Bradley's background as a professional basketball player or even his endorsements from high-profile black athletes.

Rather, President Clinton remains immensely popular with the African-American community, and Gore is likely to reap some benefit from that.

Overall, though, Gore's role as Clinton's right-hand man could work to his detriment. "Clinton fatigue" - widely touted but hard to prove - could boomerang back and hit Gore hard, even though many of the Clinton-era scandals didn't involve Gore.

In a way, Gore faces a harder challenge running for president this time than he did when he ran in the 1988 campaign. There's a reason he didn't do well as a candidate back then, and that reason still exists today - he's simply not a natural campaigner, say independent political analysts.

Now, as vice president, Gore's task is arguably harder. He can't just wander around New Hampshire, as Bradley has been doing, chatting with folks in living rooms and at picnics. He comes with a big entourage that stops traffic, and New Hampshirites get annoyed. Smelling trouble in the Granite State, Gore's campaign promises he'll do more of the low-key living-room events, but analysts are skeptical.

"They say he's going to be more accessible, but he can't be," says New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett. "Basically, if you want to talk to Bill Bradley, you can find a place and go up to him and ask him anything you want. You can't do that with Al Gore."

By calling himself the "underdog" in New Hampshire, Gore seems to be playing off of New Hampshire voters' famous contrarianism. Gore came into the race with so much inevitability tatooed on his forehead that some New Hampshirites may be telling pollsters they like Bradley just to be difficult, the theory goes. It's not clear from polling how much of the Bradley vote really reflects a desire to put him on the ticket, and how much is a protest vote against the Clinton-Gore era.

Gore's underdog strategy is "too cute by nine, it seems to me," says political analyst Charles Jones at Washington's Brookings Institution. "If I were him, I would not acknowledge that he's giving you folks [the media] and all the rest of us 'watchers' what we want, which is a contest."

Indeed, a certain portion of the latest Bradley craze - epitomized by the Bradley cover on this week's Time magazine, called "The Man Who Could Beat Gore" - may be a result of media and pundit boredom. By all the early campaign measures - money, polls, and endorsements - Texas Gov. George W. Bush appears so solidly in place to win the Republican nomination that the political class is casting about for some excitement.

But could Bradley really beat out Gore, especially as long as the economy stays strong? Like Gore, Bradley is no scintillating campaigner, and voters still don't know him.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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