In these hectic days before voters actually start voting for presidential nominees, Bill Bradley and Al Gore are getting down to the heart of the matter: how each would perform as president of the United States.
The Democratic rivals are, in many ways, a study in similarity. Both are described by aides as highly intelligent, often cerebral, inspiring the loyalty of staff.
Both demand excellence and display a commitment to their issues. Both can also at times be rigid in their views, at the expense of bringing closure to a matter. At other times, both can bend with the political winds.
As much as former Senator Bradley has tried to portray himself as an outsider, his 18 years as a senator arguably make him as much a creature of Washington as Vice President Gore, himself a former senator.
For now, though, the two men would have voters believe that their presidencies would be radically different affairs. Bradley has promised a Reaganesque presidency of focused vision, with a few key issues - most prominently, health care - dominating his efforts. Gore has projected a Clintonian desire to try to tackle everything, though he prefers to compare his style to more-revered figures than the man he seeks to succeed.
"I have different models for the presidency - leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson," Gore said in a speech this week. "They knew that we had to proceed on all the great unfinished business of our society."
A Democratic strategist who knows both candidates says their recent debates have illuminated how each would govern.
"Gore's style is combative," she says. "He pushes the limits of staff, he enjoys excellence.... I don't think you'd go in and talk to Gore without having dotted all i's and crossed all t's and expect a profitable conversation."
Bradley's style, she says, is more conducive to creating consensus. Indeed, at a panel discussion here this week at the American Enterprise Institute on how Bill Bradley would govern, his former chief of staff, Marcia Aronoff, stressed his propensity to seek a wide range of views before settling on a position.
An enigmatic Bradley
Bradley has been secretive about who he has consulted as he drafts policy positions, as well as on personal matters - an approach that would, in a Bradley presidency, roll back the clock from a Clinton era where it has seemed almost no detail was too private.
But some names have trickled out, revealing an eclectic group of interlocutors, from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, one of the most left-leaning Cabinet members of the Clinton presidency, to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who served under the Republican President Richard Nixon.
Gore, as the Democratic establishment choice for the party's nomination, has tended to stick more to his party's center in his campaign. And were he to be elected president, his mainstream approach as a candidate - and his status as the party's heir apparent - may make it easier for him to govern, Democratic analysts say.
Positioning himself as a maverick, Bradley has attracted a large following in the early nominating states - Iowans vote in Jan. 24 caucuses, New Hampshirites vote a week later. But the question remains how a maverick would perform in office.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek doesn't ultimately see much difference between Bradley and Gore.
"Reality will take hold if either wins the presidency," he says. "Bradley's not going to be able to enact significant, big liberal programs, and Gore will also be constrained in what he can do. A lot depends on what kind of Congress we get."
Other analysts echo this view. In this era of heightened partisanship, a Democratic president may find it difficult to enact any significant policy changes if Congress remains under Republican control - though control of Congress after the November vote appears up for grabs. The Democratic strategist who knows both candidates believes that, given Gore's style, he would have a very difficult time handling a Republican congress.
Gore may have an edge
But former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, speaking at the AEI panel on Bradley, suggested that Gore might have the edge in dealing with Congress, given his two terms as vice-president. "Gore has an advantage," he says. "He's been there, he's worked hard, he's on a first-name basis with a lot of people."
Congressman Rostenkowski calls Bradley "knowledgeable" and "a detail guy," but "is he going to be able to compromise? That's what it's all about, compromising, so you're working legislation through the process."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society