Bill Bradley Plays Thoughtful Jock Early in the Game Against Al Gore

“When I was 14 years old, I went to basketball camp.”

It was at least the third time in two days that Bill Bradley, the former New York Knick turned three-term United States Senator turned, at long, long last, declared candidate for President, was telling this story. But here, in the boys’ locker room of a Plymouth, N.H., high school, where the cubbyholes were lined with favorite passages of Mr. Bradley’s recently published Values of the Game and the benches were crowded with young hoopsters politely paralyzed with awe, it had the hushed, hypnotic lure of a fairy tale come true. And the 6-foot 6-inch prince himself was telling it.

“There was a coach there,” said Mr. Bradley, “and he said, ‘If you’re not practicing, remember: Somebody, somewhere is practicing. And if you two meet, given roughly equal ability, he’s going to win.’”

It was plain to see the image being kindled in the bright eyes of the boys; images of who Mr. Bradley had been and who they wanted to be: a bright, stoic star who, determined never to lose for lack of trying, sentenced himself to long stretches of life on an often lonely court. But to the journalists closely packed around the scene they could faintly feel themselves defiling, the story called a different sport to mind, and a different athlete, too. For somewhere, at this very moment, Vice President Al Gore was surely out there, relentlessly practicing his game: dialing for dollars, locking down Democrats by the bloc, making impressive, practice-President exits from Air Force Two on television.

And, if one had to get mythic about it, Mr. Gore was thoroughly prepared for a hand-to-hand duel of destinies. If Mr. Bradley had been encouraged, since he first set foot in a locker room like this one, to think himself Presidential timber, Mr. Gore had been encouraged to do so since he first set foot in life; and now the second-generation senator had moved to the front of the Democratic line.

“I’m not really running against Al Gore,” said Mr. Bradley. “I’m running because of what I want to do for the country.”

On that score, over the three days in the Granite State, Mr. Bradley made a palpably positive impression on, among others, the Boys and Girls Club of Concord; high school dropouts who had dropped back in via a program called Youthbuild in Manchester; a bunch of Head Start toddlers in Dover; several shoppers on the cinematically American Main Street of Plymouth; devotees of morning public radio.

But it was still hard to ignore the thought that, meanwhile, the economy was booming, the President, however impeached, was soaring, the Vice President certainly seemed to be rocking, and therefore the question was pressing: Who, a year from now, will candidate Bill Bradley have turned out to be? Will he emerge as a sort of post-New Hampshire, pre- Monkey Business Gary Hart, poised to upset the lumbering Establishment apple cart of this year’s Walter Mondale? Or will he be a Paul Tsongas for the millennium-too solid to be ridiculous, but too far outpaced to be real?

Then again, he could just turn out to be a cross between Jack Kerouac and Oprah Winfrey. An exhortative listener, on the road.

“You can learn how people feel in two ways,” Mr. Bradley told a press conference after a discussion of hopes and fears with the Youthbuild kids. “You can learn by taking a poll, or you can learn by hearing people’s stories. I’ve always been a politician who liked to learn by hearing people’s stories.” (Mr. Gore, the casual listener could infer, is a politician who takes polls as delightedly as he takes iffy campaign contributions.)

There is, of course, nothing new to Mr. Bradley or to politics about the on-the-road motif; his first autobiography, published in 1977, was, after all, Life on the Run , and rare is the politician who fails to find anecdotal distillations of America from sea to shining sea. But rare, too, is the politician whose chief strategist would seem to be Socrates: Whatever thematic slots may be claimed by other Presidential contenders in 2000, Mr. Bradley definitely has dibs on “the-unexamined-life-is-not-worth-living” candidacy.

As if to place himself on a seesaw opposite Washington’s politics of personal destruction, he is offering up a politics of personal exploration, revelation, redemption.

On the stump, he comes across as almost athletically introspective, and Socratically inquisitive. Asked by a reporter what he feared, Mr. Bradley said: “Not being able to reach that part of myself that can reach that part of America that will convey to them how good we all are.” Asked why he was running for President, he mentioned “trying to tap … the untapped capacity of this country … turn the energy that … we see every day in our economy or in our technological progress and turning it toward things that remain undone.”

Asked in what broad, substantive areas he differed from Mr. Gore, he referred somewhat mysteriously to “different personal histories.” Asked why he felt equal to a Presidential run when his last Senate race-in 1990 against Christine Todd Whitman-had nearly ended in defeat, he answered, in part, by citing the principle of personal growth in the wake of crisis, then observing, “Nothing is forever, so you’ve got to live every day in the fullest possible way.”

Nice line, but for those of us who think about politics in terms of, well, politics -as in: Tap the troops, to raise the money, to magnify the message, to dominate the debate, to gut your opponent, to win the White House-this particular approach by Bill Bradley can get to feel a little runny. Don’t forget, it’s coming from somebody who can do substance like Fred and Ginger did the Continental, which makes it a little deflating. There is, of course, plenty of time for Mr. Bradley to lock himself into policy positions, and no political urgency for him to do it now, except perhaps to quell the talk about lack of a rationale.

“He didn’t give a reason other than ‘It’s the right time for me,’” said Democratic consultant David Eichenbaum, whose last candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, certainly suffered for her self-definitional shortcomings. “The guy is perfectly capable of talking about the issues. But is he going to do it in a way that touches people?”

“That’s the view of politics from the wrong end of the telescope,” said Mr. Bradley. Far from disdaining the notion of touching people, he was refuting the suggestion that his pledge both to forgo P.A.C. money and also to “set up no sham state P.A.C.’s to allow one, two, 300,000-dollar contributions to be filtered in and then used to educate the people of New Hampshire about issues that are important to me” might be self-stifling. But his whole campaign amounts to a refutation of politicking. It has to; it’s his only viable option. If this race is run on a slick political plane, he will get creamed.

As perceived through the conventional-wisdom end of the telescope, the case against Mr. Bradley is very clear, while the case for him is, right now at least, very cloudy. Ideologically, ethnically and stylistically, Mr. Bradley is widely viewed as extremely like Mr. Gore, while, financially and organizationally, he is way behind. To be sure, by 1990, Mr. Bradley had become one of the most formidable fund-raisers in American politics-but that was when George Bush was in the White House and Mr. Bradley was on the Senate Finance Committee. Now, even in the Garden State, Mr. Gore looms large.

“There aren’t many people I talk to who won’t participate because Bill Bradley is running,” said Orin Kramer, a leading New Jersey Democratic fund-raiser who, like many of the top fund-raisers from the last decade, has signed on with the Gore campaign. “People can draw whatever inferences they want from that.” Organizationally, “Putting together his actual operation is going to be really hard,” said operative Martin Brennen. “Ninety-eight percent of everyone from hacks to mild progressives are on board [with Mr. Gore]. If you want to get something done that has remotely to do with the Federal Government, where do you go?”

And the calendar, too, has conspired against the underdog: Now that major primaries will come earlier and closer together than ever, it will be more difficult for upsets in Iowa and New Hampshire to snowball into ultimate success. “The first primary is the one that goes on now, for $1,000-givers and elected officials and consultants,” said Mr. Kramer. “If somebody badly loses that race this year they’re not be going to be in the race next year.”

But hang on a minute. “If conventional wisdom were an accurate predictor of what was going to happen in elections, we wouldn’t bother to hold them,” said Mr. Bradley’s media consultant Anita Dunn, calling from Chicago en route to an icestorming Iowa. “To sit here on Feb. 1 and say that Gore is inevitable is just ridiculous.”

Indeed, if the telescope is adjusted, other possibilities do become visible. The decisions of Senators Bob Kerrey and Paul Wellstone to absent themselves from the primary, and the expected decision of House minority leader Richard Gephardt to do the same, can only help Mr. Bradley, insofar as he has become the only game in town for anyone who decides against Mr. Gore. (Mr. Bradley’s supporters are divided on whether it would be good or bad for them if the Rev. Jesse Jackson got in, but they should be praying he stays out: What could they gain from the entry of someone who would soak up lots of the limelight left over from the Vice President, vacuum up whatever lefties might find Mr. Bradley less objectionable than Mr. Gore, and drown out Mr. Bradley on the subject of race?)

On the fund-raising front, Mr. Bradley is not Mr. Gore, but he’s not Little Orphan Annie, either. A kickoff fund-raiser, to be held in New Jersey on March 3, and a gala to be thrown in May in New York by the Broadway producers Roger Berlind, Emanuel Azenberg and Rocco Landesman should give an idea of where he falls between the two. As for atmospherics, “he has to catch lightning in a bottle,” said State Senator Raymond Lesniak of New Jersey, a major fund-raiser for Mr. Gore; he has a year to do it. Recession could, for instance, rise up and reawaken the dozing insecurities of the middle class (though it remains to be seen how a Bradley response to this would differ from a Gore one).

But, clearly, for the Bradley supporters, the most enticing possibility of all is that, once the public becomes confident that the Clinton Administration no longer needs protecting from the clutches of Kenneth Starr, Mr. Gore could become part of a big ole scandal wad that America just wants to spit out. If that happens, Mr. Bradley’s chance to seize upon it will emanate not from what he says or does. It will be all about who he is, and who he is painting himself as: Dollar Bill, a guy whose first fame came from something other than getting elected and re-elected, a tall American champion-excellent, sweaty, egalitarian, intelligent, not greedy. Who won’t take P.A.C. money, speak in fluent sound bites, or have “Party Line” stamped on his forehead. Who shares the national nausea at Washington; so shares it, in fact, that a couple of years ago, he quit.

That super-populist persona may not be totally realistic-Mr. Bradley is, after all, not exactly a stranger to privilege-but, in the right set of circumstances, it could be powerfully resonant.

“You’re starting to differentiate yourself from Al Gore,” a reporter from New Jersey television said to the former Senator. “To boil it down from what I’ve heard today, he’s the Washington candidate and the professional politician, and you’re more of the outside-the-Beltway candidate. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Kind of,” replied Mr. Bradley.

But it’s precisely what he’s doing.