Can Dollar Bill Bradley Dunk Al Gore?

Bill Bradley hasn’t run around in a tank top and short pants since the late 1970′s, so most of today’s young voters have no memory of his glorious career as a Knick. The significance of Mr. Bradley’s basketball metaphors, then, may well be lost on audiences out in the heartland.

But here in New York, well, even the twentysomethings who grew up with Patrick Ewing know that Mr. Bradley was something special, that for a memorable decade he and his Knick teammates owned the city, thanks to a particular and now-vanished brand of unselfish basketball. And with Mr. Bradley serving New Jersey as a U.S. Senator for 18 years, the connection between New York and the Presidential candidate formerly known as Dollar Bill was never broken. New York is as much a part of Mr. Bradley’s being as Crystal City, Mo., where he was born, and Princeton, N.J., where he came to the attention of New Yorker writer John McPhee. His uniform number, 24, hangs from the rafters in Madison Square Garden.

Now, with Mr. Bradley’s Presidential candidacy gaining momentum every day, wouldn’t you know: New York’s Presidential primary on March 7 is looming as perhaps the critical test of the former Senator’s ability to vanquish both Vice President Al Gore and conventional wisdom. And, at the moment at least, it appears that Mr. Bradley has a home-court advantage that Mr. Gore’s people weren’t counting on. Polls by the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion, Quinnipiac College and Zogby International show the two men in a dead heat. Mr. Gore’s once-commanding double-digit lead has vanished. It would be impossible to exaggerate the alarm the polls have caused in Mr. Gore’s camp, for if the Vice President loses New York, his shiny but bulky campaign machinery may seize up completely, although a victory in California, which holds its primary the same day as New York’s, may make a Gore loss in New York less crippling.

Still, a defeat in New York was not in the script Mr. Gore’s supporters and the national pundits wrote earlier this year, when the Vice President’s nomination was considered a fait accompli , and Mr. Bradley was thought to be one windmill short of Don Quixote. No wonder the Gore machine is emitting a grinding noise last heard when former Vice President Walter Mondale was the party organization’s favorite son. Ever since Mr. Gore opened his New York campaign office on Sept. 13, he has gotten almost nothing but bad news. Within days, the campaign came under attack from former State Democratic Party chairman John Marino, a close associate of ex-Governor Mario Cuomo and his son, Andrew Cuomo, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The Cuomos are among Mr. Gore’s most vocal supporters in New York (the junior Mr. Cuomo’s friends in the media say that he would be President Gore’s chief of staff), so to political insiders, Mr. Marino’s message couldn’t have been clearer: The First Family of New York Democratic politics was very displeased with the Vice President’s struggling Presidential campaign.

Then a group of 20 Brooklyn Democrats announced their support for Mr. Bradley, complaining that the Vice President suffered from a case of “terminal Clintonitis.” Shortly thereafter came news that the Quinnipiac poll showed Mr. Gore leading Mr. Bradley by a mere two points, 42 percent to 40, and Marist had the two men tied at 42. Several days earlier, Zogby found Mr. Gore ahead, 42 to 36.

All this is making Mr. Gore’s supporters extremely nervous. Shouldn’t New York-of all places!-be more hospitable to the sitting Democratic Vice President, who is the anointed preference of the party’s power elite? Even as recently as a few months ago, the Gore campaign figured that New York, coming just after the New Hampshire primary, would all but clinch the nomination and drive Mr. Bradley out of contention. The Gore camp didn’t think of New York as a place that still remembers Mr. Bradley as the head and heart of the Knicks, or as a fondly remembered neighbor who carved a niche for himself as New Jersey’s answer to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: a scholar as statesman. Rather, being political operatives, they saw New York merely as Clinton Country, home of various F.O.B.’s, Kenneth Starr haters and a state Democratic Party so loyal that it is prepared to support Hillary Clinton as its U.S. Senate candidate despite her slight residency problem.

Now some Gore backers grumble that the Vice President’s campaign may have blown its chance to bring Mr. Bradley to his knees in New York. To hear them tell it, the opening of the campaign office just north of Penn Station on Seventh Avenue is but a reminder of how the Gore campaign has neglected to schmooze the state’s Democrats. “It’s obviously too late,” said City Councilman Kenneth Fisher, a stalwart Gore partisan. “The question is: Is it too little?”

Eric Eve, the New York campaign director for Mr. Gore, insisted that the Vice President’s supporters had nothing to worry about. “We’ve always expected a tough and a close race,” he told The Observer . “But we know how to win these races. Al Gore’s the best candidate with the best record.”

Not all of Mr. Gore’s supporters are heartened by such rhetoric. One of their chief complaints is that the campaign has been too focused on fund raising in New York and not enough on attending to the wavering powerbrokers and elected officials who are important in getting out the primary vote. Indeed, the Gore campaign had a fund-raising office in the city months before it opened a campaign office.

Where Was the Outreach?

As a result, the campaign must now woo party leaders-among them Representative Jerrold Nadler of the West Side, Representative Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn and Long Island’s two party chairmen-who should have been in the Vice President’s camp from the very beginning. It’s an embarrassing position for a campaign that banked on having the overwhelming support of New York’s Democratic establishment. And bringing these errant leaders back into the fold isn’t getting any easier now that Mr. Bradley threatens to overtake Mr. Gore in the polls. “If Gore had reached out to every member of the New York delegation six months ago, he would have had them in a heartbeat,” said a Congressional staff member. “But now people are questioning his candidacy.”

Some blame Mr. Eve. The son of Assembly Deputy Speaker Arthur Eve of Buffalo and a protégé of State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, Mr. Eve, 32, served an aide to Harold Ickes at the White House and later as a Northeast political director for the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996. He is now on leave from his job as a Washington-based lobbyist for Bell Atlantic.

Mr. Eve’s credentials are the envy of any ambitious young Democrat. But party insiders say he has largely ignored those who urged the campaign to spend more time reaching out to local officials and less time reaching for checks. “He has repeatedly refused to follow advice,” grumbled a Democratic operative.

The Gore campaign dismisses these criticisms as negligible. Mr. Eve contended that he has been working diligently to build support among the party regulars. How else, he argued, could Mr. Gore have picked up the recent endorsements by 100 Latino elected Democratic officials and party activists and 120 more politicians and union members from Long Island? The Vice President has the strong support of such party leaders as Mr. McCall, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Mr. Eve said there was no tension between the Gore effort and the Cuomo family. Ginny Terzano, spokeswoman for Andrew Cuomo, said the H.U.D. Secretary is scheduled to be at the Vice President’s side at a Sept. 30 campaign stop in Amsterdam, N.Y., and has “personally expressed that he would do whatever he can” to ensure a Gore victory next year.

However, party regulars are convinced Mr. Marino’s criticism of the Gore campaign is a sure sign that the Cuomos are unhappy. “Oh, come on,” said a Democratic operative. “Everybody knows John Marino doesn’t take a piss without consulting Andrew first.” (“That’s not the way I operate,” Mr. Marino fumed. “Anyone suggesting otherwise doesn’t know me.”)

But Mr. Gore’s people can’t escape the fact that the Bradley campaign has picked up momentum in recent weeks. His high-profile supporters include such unlikely figures as filmmaker Spike Lee, director Woody Allen and his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, boutique investment banker Herbert Allen, talk-show host Regis Philbin, actor Ethan Hawke, Barnes & Noble chief executive officer Leonard Riggio and designer Tommy Hilfiger.

Of course, Mr. Gore has his own celebrity backers, including Sumner Redstone, chief executive officer of Viacom Inc., Robert Friedman, president of New Line Cinema, VH1 president John Sykes, Robert De Niro, Quincy Jones and Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films. But their presence doesn’t dispel the aura of malaise that has set in among any of his supporters. “They’re not the cool campaign,” lamented Rockland County legislator Ryan Karben, a Gore supporter. “You can win without being cool, but you can’t win without being organized. They are not organized either.”

Gore the Underdog?

The Gore campaign all but concedes that Mr. Bradley has the momentum in New York. In fact, in a sign of just how much the dynamic in this race has changed, the Gore campaign now casts its candidate as the struggling underdog in a race against a glamorous local boy. “Bill Bradley has spent a lot of time in New York over the last 30 years, 18 in New York’s media market in the U.S. Senate and 10 with the Knicks,” Mr. Eve said. “It’s no surprise that he’s fairly well known here. But we can beat him here [once] New Yorkers learn more about Al Gore.”

Of course, the Vice President is not exactly a stranger to New York either. “The fact of the matter is that Al Gore has been running for President of the United States since 1988, when his campaign ended in New York,” scoffed Jacques DeGraff, senior adviser to the Bradley campaign.

In Mr. Gore’s case, familiarity may have bred resentment. New York Democrats may profess adoration for the Clintons in public, but some party loyalists have been irked that the President and the First Lady seem to rely on the same old clique of local F.O.B.’s. So some party members are dying for attention, and Mr. Bradley shrewdly has been happy to oblige. Throughout last spring, he made himself available to the rank-and-file Democrats in a way that Mr. Gore, traveling with an entourage and Secret Service protection, could not. Indeed, early on, with the help of City Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge, the Bradley campaign lured a number of City Council members to a meeting with the former Senator at La Reserve, an elegant French restaurant in midtown.

The gathering lacked the usual buffet table and bar staples that most pols probably expect when they are being wooed. “All they got was diet soda,” said Michael Del Giudice, co-chairman of Mr. Bradley’s New York operation. “He stood up at this meeting and subjected himself to any question that anybody asked, and people asked him a wide variety of questions,” said Herbert Berman, a powerful City Council member from Brooklyn who endorsed Mr. Bradley in early September. “I’ve never been invited to anything like that with Gore.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Bradley’s wife, Ernestine Schlant, was dispatched to faraway upstate locales to romance the party faithful. “She’s great,” said Chris Gardner, Schenectady County’s Democratic chairman and a Bradley supporter. “We like her a lot up here.”

By July, it began to dawn on the Gore campaign that New York wasn’t going to be a slam-dunk. Despite Mr. Gore’s seemingly invincible collection of high-profile supporters, a number of important Democrats were wavering. The most glaring example was David Alpert, Democratic chairman of Westchester County, who was praising Mr. Bradley as the “more electable” candidate and ridiculing Mr. Gore as “a stuffed shirt.”

The Gore campaign went into crisis mode. Both Tony Coelho, Mr. Gore’s national chairman, and the Vice President himself made personal appeals to Mr. Alpert. The Westchester chairman suddenly saw the light, throwing his support behind Mr. Gore, praising his grasp of regional issues. He even praised Mr. Coelho for knowing how to milk a cow.

All of this grass-roots wooing must be infuriating for the Gore campaign, which was not counting on a long and bruising battle for the nomination. They now promise to deliver many more endorsements, although it appears that New York’s highest-profile Democrat-Senator Moynihan-will announce his support for Mr. Bradley any day now.

The faint but distinct sound of quiet desperation can be heard in the criticisms now being lobbed at Mr. Bradley. Mr. McCall has taken to criticizing Mr. Bradley for deciding to retire from the U.S. Senate after three terms. “I can’t support a quitter,” he told the Associated Press.

Of course, once upon a time, Mr. Gore’s supporters were counting on Mr. Bradley to be a quitter. Instead, they’re playing one-on-one with a guy who, as many New Yorkers knew all along, has a splendid outside shot.