Bradley: How far can he go?

Gore wins one, but a prolonged challenge from Bradley could deplete his campaign.

Al Gore has chased the presidency for virtually his entire adult life. The next five weeks could well determine whether he gets it.

He will cross the nation in coming days knowing that he needs to build on his narrow New Hampshire victory by crushing Bill Bradley on March 7 - the day of the nearly national primary.

Otherwise, Mr. Bradley will likely battle on, using his cash to highlight Mr. Gore's weaknesses - while amassing enough delegates for the Democratic convention to actually make the month of August interesting.

Gore might then share the fate of President Ford, who survived a tough primary struggle with Ronald Reagan in 1976, only to fall, exhausted, to Jimmy Carter.

Meanwhile, the rise of the GOP's John McCain must fill the vice president's camp with alarm. If pollsters could manufacture a candidate to run against Gore, the charismatic former POW might be the man.

"March 7 is the big day, and a lot will sort itself out from there," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Coming out of the New Hampshire vote, the good news for Gore was that he won at all. For much of the winter, polls showed him trailing Bradley in a state that is not usually hospitable to establishment candidates - especially one from Tennessee who had to learn to campaign with greater animation than a cherry-wood table.

But Gore's grinding campaign - reciprocating attack for attack - wore Bradley down. At the same time, Bradley was hurt by the defection of independent voters to Arizona Senator McCain. (In New Hampshire, independents can vote in either party's primary).

Even more important, the relatively light turnout on the Democratic side of Tuesday's primary favored Gore, whose strength is in the organized core of the Democratic Party - union voters.

"Gore won, is still the favorite, and has organizational and institutional support," says Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. in Washington. "But Bradley is still in the game and will go on."

And that, for Gore, is the obvious bad news. At some points in recent days, polls showed he might deliver Bradley a potential knockout blow, defeating him by a double-digit margin. That didn't happen.

As a candidate whose message is that of the insurgent, anti-Washington politician, Bradley is likely to resist pleas to get out of the race for the good of the party. At the same time, he appears now to believe that Gore has distorted his record, and that there is a personal score to settle.

That probably means a debilitating fight. An ultimate Bradley victory cannot be ruled out, of course. He could do well in some of the 15 states that hold primaries on March 7, including New York and Connecticut.

"The stunning thing about New Hampshire is that [Gore] didn't do any better than he did. What will happen with this thing as it plays out?" says David Doak, a Democratic strategist not currently working for either man.

But the race gets steeper from here on in, and Gore is better equipped to climb the electoral mountain. He can count on wellsprings of union support across the nation, while Bradley must build organization from scratch. Gore's hold on "superdelegates" - basically, party chieftains - remains strong, and they will make up one-third of delegates to the convention.

A University of Connecticut poll shows Gore ahead of Bradley in Connecticut, 53 to 32 percent. He's ahead in New York, 44 to 39 percent, according to a Quinnipiac College survey. He leads in Ohio - another big March 7 state - 58 to 37 percent, according to The Ohio Poll.

Nationally, Gore beats Bradley by 2-to-1.

To some extent, Bradley's presence in the race has helped Gore. His challenge has forced the vice president to polish his message and his style.

But at some point, spring training needs to end. Bradley, stung by what he feels are Gore distortions, could well fire back at things such as Clinton administration campaign-finance irregularities.

"That's the stuff that could really hurt the vice president," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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