Almost without exception, Republicans say they would rather face Al Gore than Bill Bradley as the Democratic presidential nominee next year.
If Vice President Gore loses the nomination fight, Republicans say they'd lose a juicy opportunity to tie the Democratic nominee to the Clinton scandals. Mr. Bradley, a three-term senator from New Jersey who left Washington in 1997, would be harder to touch on ethical grounds.
But would Bradley really be a better candidate? In some ways yes, say independent analysts. He's recast himself as a "truth-telling" outsider, a persona that resonates with today's voters.
"You could make a case that having a clean slate would be a really good thing, particularly if the Republicans are going to run somebody from outside Washington, like George W. Bush," says John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron in Ohio.
Both men are cerebral types - and that may make tonight's debate, their first of the season, especially interesting. But on the stump, Bradley seems more relaxed and "himself" with the public than does Mr. Gore.
Still, in other ways, Gore may ultimately be the better candidate, analysts add. He has a stronger rsum, beginning with eight years of experience in the executive branch as vice president. And while he is hurt by the negatives of the Clinton legacy, he is also helped by its positive side, namely peace and prosperity.
But for now, Republican strategists say their fondest wish is to keep Bradley off the Democratic ticket.
The reason? Bradley is showing the same broad appeal that third-party candidate Ross Perot did in 1992 - that is, the ability to draw equally among conservatives, moderates, and liberals.
According to a recent survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, 37 percent of Republicans report a willingness to vote for Bradley. Among independents, the number was 52 percent, and among Democrats, 48 percent. "You will not find another candidate in the political field who has that kind of reach across the political spectrum," Mr. Luntz said at a recent Monitor breakfast.
In the long run, that calculus could change. To set himself apart, Bradley has tilted his politics slightly to the left of Gore - and the longer he does so, the more likely he is to turn off independents and Republicans.
Plus, "if the Democrats have a particularly divisive nominating contest, then Bradley's ... freshness would wear off and you'd get increased negatives," says Douglas Hodgkin, a political scientist at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and an active Republican.
So ultimately, Mr. Hodgkin isn't sure there would be a great advantage for either one in the general election.
Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at the American University here, also says that, in the end, the Democrats' chances of holding the White House won't vary according to who the nominee is, except for one factor: how the balloting goes at the Democratic convention. If neither candidate wins the nomination on the first convention ballot (at least two-thirds of the vote), then that will strike a fatal blow for whoever does win the nomination.
He also asserts that Bradley can't escape the scandal taint of the Clinton White House. Taking a page from history, he notes that William Jennings Bryan, an insurgent Democrat, won his party's nomination in 1896, repudiating every policy of his party as embodied by the administration of Grover Cleveland.
Still, Mr. Bryan lost the election, even though he was considered the most extraordinary candidate of his time. That, says Lichtman, is because he was seen as the heir to the Cleveland economic depression.
As the Gore-versus-Bradley rhetoric heats up, Republicans are watching with glee - and their notebooks open. The more the two take swipes at each other, the more ammunition they're giving the Republicans for the general election. Democrats, for their part, know that the more divisive the primary is, the dimmer their prospects of keeping the White House.
But Democratic insiders themselves are divided over who would be the better nominee - a point reflected by the fact that Bradley and Gore raised similar amounts of money during the last reporting period. Among insiders, the feeling is that Bradley seems to be picking up steam, because people see him as having a better chance of winning, a kind of circular logic that worked famously for Texas' Governor Bush early in the campaign.
For Republicans, perhaps the greatest lesson of all is to look at what happened to the Democrats in 1980. The consensus within the party was that they'd rather face Ronald Reagan than Senate minority leader Howard Baker.
Mr. Reagan, of course, went on to defeat President Carter in a landslide. But party activists on both sides can take comfort that their views have little impact on whom the other side nominates.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society