The New Bill Bradley Isn’t Hurting Al Gore in Rough State Contest

Not long after the final buzzer sounded in the shootout between Bill Bradley and Al Gore at the Apollo Theater on Feb. 21, a handful of Bradley aides were working feverishly to get the candidate’s top celebrity supporters to speak on his behalf from a stage at the front of a packed pressroom.

“The podium? Nah,” director and Knicks fan Spike Lee moaned to a Bradley handler. As Whoopi Goldberg shouted praise of Mr. Gore from the stage, the heads of Bradley supporters and Knick legends Willis Reed and Phil Jackson floated above a nearby crowd, their gazes fixed on a nearby television monitor broadcasting highlights from a Suns-Spurs basketball game.

As Sharpe James, the Mayor of Newark, N.J., stepped off the stage after delivering a virulent anti-Bradley speech, Mr. Reed grabbed the wiry Mr. James in a playful headlock. “Don’t mess with my man,” Mr. Reed said.

The circus atmosphere pervading the pressroom, as well as that of the preceding debate, was New York primary politics at its Jerry Springer-like best. But it wasn’t Mr. Bradley’s scene. Throughout the evening, Mr. Gore smirked and grinned with visible enjoyment as his low-blow attacks riled up the crowd. But the scholarly and reserved Mr. Bradley seemed exasperated and lost as he struggled to adjust to this alien world of New York-style carnival politics.

For the first time in Mr. Bradley’s life, simply being Bill Bradley just isn’t enough. As he struggles to regain the momentum he had late last year, he is learning that in Presidential politics, authenticity and a strong sense of self are not sufficient, particularly when faced with an opponent who delights in political combat and who has experienced troops in the field.

Mr. Bradley has always had a simple life strategy: He would be himself, and all else would follow. Over the years, he hewed to that tactic, and exclusive clubs beckoned: Princeton and Oxford universities, the New York Knicks, the Senate. The strategy underlying his Presidential candidacy has been no exception: He would simply be Bill Bradley, and once Democratic voters glimpsed his unvarnished persona, they would choose him over the pandering, scandal-tarnished Mr. Gore. Like his hero Woodrow Wilson, the Princeton University president who bested Tammany Hall to win the 1912 Democratic Presidential nomination, Mr. Bradley seemed to believe that the quality of his message, and of his character, could overcome brute political force.

Now, however, the very traits that Mr. Bradley prides himself on-his ironic detachment from the political process, his view of himself as the “big-ideas” candidate, his apparent contempt for Clinton-style incrementalism and his occasional air of disdainful self-confidence-may doom his hopes of winning the nomination. The man who has referred to his charmed life as a “myth” is well on his way to becoming another Paul Tsongas or Bob Kerrey, two outsiders who inspired an immense amount of excitement early on but collapsed before the ides of March.

The New York primary on March 7 looms as Mr. Bradley’s last chance to salvage his foundering candidacy; New York, after all, is Mr. Bradley’s virtual home state, the place he gained fame as a Knick. But Mr. Gore has jumped to a double-digit lead in several polls. Mr. Bradley’s big ideas about race relations and health care have been deflated by Mr. Gore’s geeky, centrist nit-picking. The challenger’s high-minded unwillingness to suck up to hacks and party builders has left him ill prepared to counteract Mr. Gore’s beaverlike operatives, who have been gnawing away at Mr. Bradley’s early support in New York for months. And Mr. Bradley’s unwavering positions in favor of abortion rights, better race relations, gun control and gay rights have proven unpersuasive to a range of advocacy groups, which have scurried away to join the compromising, but ascendant, Mr. Gore.

Mr. Bradley’s travails clearly have come as a rude shock to a man whose legendary sense of timing on the court, as well as in life, was captured in a famous 1965 New Yorker profile by John McPhee, published when he was only 19 years old. Several weeks ago, as Mr. Bradley rushed out of a Brooklyn yeshiva and toward a waiting car, he was buttonholed by a reporter who wanted to know how he felt about a powerful pro-choice group’s recent decision to endorse Mr. Gore. Mr. Bradley launched into an angry diatribe, defending his unwavering pro-choice position and assailing Mr. Gore, who was originally pro-life when he was a Representative of Tennessee. As Mr. Bradley wrapped up his criticism of Mr. Gore, he stopped and stared, wearily, for a moment. “I don’t understand it,” he murmured, just before his car darted away from the curb.

Mr. Bradley’s supporters maintain that his bad luck is simply that of an outsider taking on an establishment candidate who is backed by President Bill Clinton, who remains popular in New York. “There’s a lot of pressure to just go along with Gore, especially when you have the White House involved,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler of the Upper West Side, a Bradley supporter.

An Early Favorite

When Mr. Bradley announced his candidacy in 1998, he was hailed as a shining, ideologically pure alternative to Mr. Gore, a politician who had all of Mr. Clinton’s baggage and malleability but none of his charm. Mr. Bradley quickly moved to position himself as the candidate of big ideas, sketching out proposals for universal health care, improved race relations and overhauling public schools. Polls showed him trouncing Mr. Gore in New York, and he suddenly seemed a legitimate danger to Mr. Gore, even though the Vice President had the Democratic Party establishment behind him.

But now it seems possible, perhaps even probable, that Mr. Bradley’s exquisite sense of timing has deserted him. For one thing, his “big-ideas” candidacy has yet to resonate with a population sated by a thriving economy. Campaigns built on promises of sweeping change tend to take hold in times of domestic and international crisis; Ronald Reagan, a man of bold themes, took power amid an economic downturn at home and a hostage crisis abroad. Mr. Bradley, by contrast, is offering his candidacy at a time when Democrats seem less interested in grand ideological struggles than in choosing a winner who will keep their stock portfolios healthy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bradley occasionally seems content to let his bold policy prescriptions evaporate in a haze of abstraction, as if the fact that he suggested them precludes the need for elaboration or the construction of a consensus. Think of Woodrow Wilson and his idealistic but failed campaign to win American approval for the League of Nations. Several weeks ago, just after Mr. Gore had suggested forming a commission to study offering Federal benefits to gay and lesbian couples, Mr. Bradley blithely suggested to supporters that he didn’t need a commission; he would just do it. Mr. Bradley never got around to fleshing out his remarks.

In another instance of colossal bad timing, Mr. Bradley has also had the terrible misfortune to be running at a time when another outside candidate is sucking up all the attention: Senator John McCain, who is challenging Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican Presidential nomination. Alas for Mr. Bradley, Mr. McCain’s compelling personal biography makes for stronger campaign literature than that of Mr. Bradley. Worse, Mr. McCain is lucky to be taking on Mr. Bush, who has not been as sure-footed as Mr. Gore in defending his perceived entitlement to the nomination.

“If John McCain had not been running, Bill Bradley would be the Democratic nominee for President,” said Ethan Geto, a prominent local supporter of Mr. Bradley. “Bush looks like a bigger dragon to slay, and the arena seems unable to accommodate more than one reformist individual with a maverick style.”

Yet it’s not hard to conclude that Mr. Bradley, with his visceral contempt for local politics, has failed to lavish enough attention on advocacy groups that live to be wooed by candidates. In recent weeks, Mr. Bradley has seemed personally wounded as one such organization after another has deserted him.

Cheers Aren’t Enough

For example, in early February, Mr. Bradley’s tall and lanky frame glided back and forth on a platform as he addressed an animated crowd of gay and lesbian Democrats in an empty factory building downtown. His arms swept outward like an albatross’ wings, and his face reddened with outrage as he ticked off his unequivocal positions in favor of gay marriage and gays in the military-positions that, he asserted, made him far superior to his waffling opponent. Earlier that day, the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights group, had endorsed Mr. Gore, and Mr. Bradley was incensed. Again and again, Mr. Bradley excoriated Mr. Gore, to roars from the crowd. But cheering can’t make up for a lack of organizational spadework. Mr. Bradley may have been purer on the issues, but Mr. Gore was garnering the endorsements.

Mr. Bradley has had an equally tough time with another of his core constituencies: black New Yorkers. In recent weeks, the candidate journeyed to a Baptist church in Jamaica, Queens, where he stood alongside Al Sharpton and the Rev. Floyd Flake. Mr. Bradley was thrilled to indulge in a group Gore-bashing session with his new friends. But a week later, Mr. Gore stopped by the same church, and Mr. Flake threw his arm around the Vice President, endorsing him. In the past several months, Mr. Gore has won the endorsements of virtually the entire New York black political establishment, including Representative Charles Rangel, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall and former Mayor David Dinkins. That’s despite Mr. Bradley’s strong emphasis on improving race relations.

On a recent Monday morning, Mr. Bradley, clad in a Mister Rogers-style V-neck sweater, trudged to the front of a cafeteria in P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Some of the several dozen reporters in attendance, who seemed to outnumber local supporters at this hastily arranged town hall meeting, moved out of the press section to occupy empty seats closer to the candidate.

“I’m very disappointed that Al Gore has attacked and distorted my proposals,” Mr. Bradley said with a somewhat resigned air.

“It’s all right, though. I’m a big guy. I can take it.”