With Gore in Doubt, Bill Bradley Basks in Love and Money

“First of all, the rap has gone out that Gore can’t win,” said Democratic insider John LoCicero, apropos of why he felt that “everybody was buzzing” at the April 15 fund-raiser held at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers for Bill Bradley, the Presidential candidate he had decided that very day to back. “Look at the polls-Elizabeth Dole beats him.”

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yes, the scene at the Sheraton, complete with encouraging words from ex-Knick Willis Reed and the wit of Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was fairly lively … but for every optimistic drop of “yes” that falls into the grateful bucket of the Bradley campaign, a self-assured gallon of “but” still flows into the reservoir of Vice President Al Gore. Yes, a plethora of recent polls show Mr. Gore losing to his Republican opponents … but those polls are early, unscientific-and, at any rate, predicated on the notion that he has beaten Mr. Bradley for the Democratic nomination. Yes, Mr. Gore has, through a series of gaffes cruelly crystallized in his claim to have helped invent the Internet, occasionally brought the word “potatoe” to mind … but, with almost a year to go before the Iowa caucuses, there is plenty of time for him to straighten up and fly right, and for Mr. Bradley to humiliate himself irretrievably. Yes, having raised roughly $5.7 million thus far, Mr. Bradley has “posted a much better than expected fund-raising performance,” according to Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report . But, even in the far from certain event that Mr. Bradley continues to rake in funds at the same rate as this initial round of “love money” from his core supporters, the Vice President’s financial and organizational advantages will remain firm.

Mr. Gore would not, however, have liked the look of the Sheraton on tax night. It is, of course, never wise to read victory in a vibe-Pat Buchanan’s get-togethers are probably a scream-but the room was packed with people who stayed through the speeches, laughed at the jokes and clapped at the applause lines. Maybe it was a mad craving for something other than a coronation to cover, but all in all, it did seem that for the moment, Mr. Bradley’s chances were looking a little better than many had expected, and Mr. Gore’s were looking a little worse. A few months in, the field cleared to two, it was becoming more, rather than less, possible to imagine A Real Race.

But, if an actual Democratic primary contest turns out to be in the cards, what will that contest be like? As Mr. Bradley was slated to deliver the first major address of his campaign, on Tuesday, April 20, at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, an answer was, perhaps, beginning to find a form-though not a very firm one. Much has been made, correctly, of the tightrope that Mr. Gore, like any Vice President seeking the top slot, is obliged to walk; that of being loyal to his Administration while establishing an identity outside it. But Mr. Bradley, like all non-insane insurgents, must strike a difficult balance of his own. He must come across as sufficiently bold and different to threaten the front-runner, but not so bold and different as to put himself at risk. In a sense, he needs to project a level of substance that he can ill afford to achieve.

Which brings us to Mr. Bradley’s speech on race. To be sure, its spirit is willing and its nature is far from weak. Whatever its merits or motivations-as a tacking to the left of the Vice President; as an appeal to voters rendered undecided by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s decision not to run; or as a topical moment to be seized in the wake of the police shooting of Amadou Diallo-Mr. Bradley’s choice to make an early, honest attempt to negotiate the subject must be allowed to say what it does about his priorities. “From the President, it starts with making sure that everyone knows just how important this issue is to him, and how fundamental it is to our nation’s future.”

Aptly, then, the speech does a good job of melding Mr. Bradley’s experience of race with the country’s; of making room for both the ambivalence of his love for an aunt who happened to be something of a bigot, with the strength of his affinity for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which, as he has frequently stressed, changed him from an indifferent Republican to a convinced Democrat. It runs through the familiar montage of racial violence in America, from the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963 to Diallo’s death. It tempers its sentiment (“Our task … is to vanquish racial discord from our hearts and spirit”) with a nice salt-lick of sense (“The economic future of the children of white Americans will depend increasingly on the talents of non-white Americans. That’s not ideology; that’s demographics.”) But, more notably in a genre frequently sapped with sensitivity-speak, it is almost caustic in places, contrasting the “skin privilege” unconsciously enjoyed by those home-hunting while white with the skin penalty routinely, resentfully paid by those caught “Driving While Black.”

At least on paper, it is, in many ways, a very good speech. Indeed, to the extent that political oratory is meant to tell the public who a candidate is and how he became so, it couldn’t be much better.

But to the extent that political oratory is meant to tell people what a candidate would do if elected, it could not be much worse; conspicuously lacking, in fact, a specific word to say about affirmative action, public education, police brutality, welfare reform, health care, or any other point of policy that a President might push, or that a well-meaning, nonbigoted American might see reason to dispute. “This isn’t a situation where you can put out a 10-point proposal: Everybody should love their brother,” said Bradley aide Anita Dunn. Fair enough. There’s no harm in granting the Senator his time to pour his ideas full of concrete-but no sense, either, in granting him full credit on the race issue until he does so.

“Somebody of Bill Bradley’s stature and importance talking about a national debate on race does not go unnoticed,” said Democratic National Committee vice chair Bill Lynch, an African-American. “But how do you turn that into real policies?” Mr. Lynch is a strong supporter of Mr. Gore, but, as truly after the Bradley speech as before, he poses a very good question. And it is the kind of question that seems likely to be posed with some frequency, as long as it is in Mr. Bradley’s interest to bide his time not being Mr. Gore. And such a posture is in his interest, at least for now.

Given the circumstances, what political candidate wouldn’t sit back and let fishy foreign donations, bloody Balkan wars and the like damage the front-runner however they might, before getting into the fray? Hopefully, Mr. Bradley. A sit-back strategy would be politically wise, but substantively disappointing, particularly for those pleasantly surprised at the prospect of a

real primary. While combing through his ruminations on genetically based tensions in the United States, one couldn’t help but think of those in Europe. Kosovo was not, of course, the topic of the day, but one could have been forgiven for asking why it wasn’t. Mr. Bradley is, after all, hoping to become the next President, and Kosovo is the current President’s most treacherous riddle. Moreover, Kosovo is, quite literally, Mr. Bradley’s territory: Over his 18 years in the Senate, he accrued a reputation for real depth and breadth of mind in foreign policy, particularly when it came to the very Russia now so exercised over the NATO strategy. Domestically speaking, for the moment at least, Kosovo is serving to stoke embers of doubt in the wisdom of the Clinton-Gore Administration, the ignition of which doubt represents the primary, if not only, hope of the Bradley candidacy.

There are, of course, countless reasons why a typically timid politician would tiptoe around the invisible yet explosive mines of such an issue-whether or not Kosovo is a military quagmire, it has every potential to prove a political one-but not a reason in the world why an atypically candid politician would shrink from weighing in on it. Which will he turn out to be? A stalker who waits for the front-runner to stumble? Or a statesman who goes in where poll-worshiping politicians fear to tread? Or would he even be wise to decide?

“Once you get tagged that you can’t win, it creates an atmosphere that there is an alternative,” said Mr. LoCicero, perhaps a bit wishfully, of Mr. Gore. “And the alternative is Bradley.”