March Madness in New York

The photographers jamming the doorway of Gray’s Papaya at Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue on March 2 wanted to know why Bill Bradley’s aides hadn’t taken down the paper papayas that dangled from the ceiling, blocking their view of a big, neon hot-dog sign. If they got a shot of Mr. Bradley under the words “hot dog,” they would surely get their photos into the next day’s papers, a task that had grown nearly impossible given the gloom enveloping his campaign in recent weeks.

Finally, Mr. Bradley showed up. He put on a red apron and positioned himself behind the counter.

“Anyone want a hot dog, huh?” Mr. Bradley said. “They are all on me.” He stabbed a dog with a fork and raised it in the air.

“This hot dog is going in this bun, like this!” he told the photographers, in a tone similar to that of a teacher explaining simple addition to slow kindergarten kids.

Mr. Bradley took an enormous bite of the hot dog. Flashbulbs popped. As he chewed, his head swiveled back and forth. He regarded the photographers with a strange, mocking expression. This was what his Presidential campaign had come down to: chewing a hot dog for the cameras. And these guys had to stand there and take pictures of him as sauerkraut dribbled down his chin. You almost expected Mr. Bradley to chew with his mouth open, like a grade-school bully who had taken a hot dog from another kid and wanted him to see what had become of it.

Mr. Bradley took another bite.

“O.K., can I get all that in my mouth?” Mr. Bradley asked as he held up the last of his dog. He could, it turned out.

But the event wasn’t over. Mr. Bradley’s aides still wanted him to make a speech. They handed him a megaphone and told him to stand on top of a box of Sabrett onion sauce cans. He rattled off a few lines. “Now we put the full-court press on!” he shouted.

Mr. Bradley turned to an aide and handed off his megaphone. “O.K?” he asked.

–Greg Sargent

1:40 p.m., P.S. 163, Manhattan:

Vice President Al Gore was packed into the library at P.S. 163 on the Upper West Side. With him were Public Advocate Mark Green, Assembly member Scott Stringer and Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers. Mr. Gore gave a stock talk on education, advocating, among other things, universal prekindergarten programs and interest-free Federal loans to build new schools. “The Republicans want to take money from public schools,” he said. “They seem to think that the P.S. in public school means that education is an afterthought.” Two seconds pass. The assembled V.I.P.’s begin to laugh. The Vice President has made a joke.

–Andrea Bernstein

March 3

Noon, Federal Hall, Manhattan:

It wasn’t the sort of crowd you’d want to mess with. The veterans holding huge McCain signs and P.O.W.-M.I.A. flags turned surly as they spotted two small brown “Veterans for Bush” placards among the dense crowd of thousands gathered near the McCain rally. “What kind of veterans are you?” shouted the man holding the biggest flag. “Go back to Bush!” Several young broker types down in the street joined in the heckling. “Get outta here!” said one, in the general direction of the two middle-aged Bushies. “McCain’s gonna take our Government back!” shouted his friend.

The men in the crowd, getting pumped for the arrival of their candidate, started talking tough themselves. “Where the fuck is he?” inquired one trader type. “Come on, Johnnie!”

Finally, Mr. McCain bounded up the steps to roars from the suit-and-tie crowd, flanked by his top supporters, Representative Peter King and Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari. Mr. Molinari, seizing on the truculent mood, launched into a tirade against his former allies in the State Republican Party. “We’re gonna kick ‘em in the teeth,” he roared.

Mr. McCain, who had thrown off his overcoat despite chilling winds, eagerly grabbed the microphone. Referring to “comrades Pataki and Powers,” the onetime captive of Ho Chi Minh declared, “The machine was trying to keep us off the ballot, but we were able to tear down the last vestiges of Communism that I know of.” The Bush supporters with the little brown placards positioned themselves near the outermost fringe of the shifting crowd.

“Don’t be fooled by them, my friends,” warned Mr. McCain. “Don’t be fooled.”

–Josh Benson

1:40 P.M., Stony Brook, L.I.:

Bruce Teitelbaum, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign manager, was standing in a corner of a college lecture room, a barely perceptible film of sweat dampening his forehead. His boss, who has once again managed to make himself the center of attention by refusing to attack John McCain’s Senate voting record as anti-New York, was nowhere to be seen. The Mayor was supposed to be at MacArthur Airport, half an hour east of here, to greet Gov. George W. Bush as he touched down in the state for the first time in five months. But the Mayor stopped for a sandwich on the way and didn’t make it to the airport in time. Instead, Representative Rick Lazio, who has been talking about challenging Mr. Giuliani for the G.O.P.’s Senate nomination, was there to greet Mr. Bush and ride to the State University of New York campus at Stony Brook, L.I., in the Bush motorcade.

Mr. Bush was sporting a pink ribbon on his jacket to emphasize his commitment to breast cancer research. This event was designed to kick off the Bush campaign’s strategy of attacking Mr. McCain as pro-breast cancer. Breast cancer is a key issue on Long Island, where Mr. Bush’s support was soft and the incidence of breast cancer high.

Oddly, Mr. Bush proposed no new initiatives and couldn’t even remember, in a press conference afterward, what he’d ever done to support breast cancer research in Texas. “That’s a Federal issue!” he said. Within a half-hour, his communications director, Karen Hughes, distributed handouts with Mr. Bush’s Texas breast cancer record on them.

Through the event, the tension between Mr. Pataki and Mr. Giuliani stole the show. Privately, Pataki aides were hinting that the Republican Senate nomination is far from wrapped up. Mr. Pataki and Mr. Giuliani ignored each other as much as possible.

But then Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny, president of SUNY Stony Brook, happened to mention that the university invented the “virtual colonoscopy.”

When the Mayor was called on to say a few words, he said: “I really didn’t come prepared to speak. Governor Pataki called me yesterday and told me I could get a virtual colonoscopy here. You guys [in the press] ready to do it? I see the white coats out here.” Nervous laughter. Just who was shoving an object up whose rectum remained to be seen.

–Andrea Bernstein

6:15 p.m., Syracuse:

The Bush campaign left Long Island for an upstate flyaround, hitting the key upstate cities of Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. The candidate arrived for the first rally nearly on time, at 6:15 p.m. Mr. Bush introduced his wife, Laura, with the same phrase he had been using for the last five months: “Best decision I ever made was to marry her! I don’t know if the best decision she ever made was to marry me!” Then the stump speech: “I am not running for Federal superintendent of schools! … When I am elected President of the United States I promise to put my hand on that Bible and swear to uphold not only the laws of the land, but the dignity and honor of that office, so help me God! Thank you very much!” Hands were shaken, placards were signed, local television stations got their interviews. Then it was back in the plane, to do it all over again. In Rochester, a local reporter asked how Mr. Bush planned to help fix crumbling schools. He talked about moving power out of Washington and into the states, “so there is more flexibility.” And, he said, “I’m going to sign an income tax bill so people have more money in their pockets.”

So they can build their own schools?

–Andrea Bernstein

March 4

1 p.m., Zabar’s, Manhattan:

Bill Bradley was in an upbeat mood as he inched his way through the jammed aisles of Zabar’s. His energetic, German-born wife, Ernestine Bradley, chatted up women and pinched the cheeks of babies. A Zabar’s cap perched atop Mr. Bradley’s head floated high above the crowd as he made his way around behind the butcher’s counter at the rear of the store.

“Can he get an apron?” a nervous aide shouted.

The whole scene might have been reminiscent of the 1970′s: a boldly progressive candidate gripping and grinning in the heart of big-city liberalism, the Upper West Side. But the years had taken their toll on the neighborhood’s political tradition–and, by extension, on Mr. Bradley’s candidacy. As Mr. Bradley made the rounds, Saturday shoppers, all residents of an affluent neighborhood populated by aging baby boomers, browsed over smoked salmon and beluga. Children and babies jammed the aisles. The onlookers were glad to have a glimpse of Mr. Bradley, and they clearly wished him well. But they didn’t seem fired up by his presence.

“He can run the country, but he can’t slice cheese!” a butcher remarked as he watched Mr. Bradley at work.

The candidate began slicing ham. “This is a great visual, isn’t it?” Mr. Bradley asked sardonically.

“Is that what you’re gonna do to Al Gore?” a photographer shouted out.

“Slice him up!” Mr. Bradley answered.

Mrs. Bradley studied her husband’s moves carefully. “Bill looks good!” she said. “Oooh! Attractive guy!”

Over at the lox counter, Mr. Bradley grinned as he handed a piece of smoked salmon to a baby named Aubrey Chang. He was having fun, finally.

Not long after, Mr. Bradley emerged into the Broadway sun. Cheers erupted on the sidewalk. “West Side for Bill Bradley!” a young volunteer shouted.

Over by the curb, street vendor Ottavio Qualini watched the crowd balefully from behind his table of books. In each hand he held a copy of Values of the Game , Mr. Bradley’s 1998 collection of basketball essays.

“Nobody bought a Bill Bradley book!” Mr. Qualini shouted. He seemed a bit drunk. “Nobody bought one! Some sponsors you are! Bozos! Nobody bought it!”

“We already have it,” one aide said meekly.

As Mr. Bradley approached his van at curbside, Mr. Qualini rushed over to him. “Will you sign these?” he asked. Mr. Bradley signed the books.

“O.K.! Now they’re signed!” the vendor shouted to the crowd. “Is anybody gonna buy them now?”

A pause.

“Nobody’s gonna buy them, anyway!” Mr. Qualini said. He began taunting the volunteers: “You can’t sell Bill Bradley!”

–Greg Sargent

2 p.m., John Jay College, Manhattan:

It was billed as the Irish-American Presidential Forum, but spectators would have been forgiven if they thought they had stumbled upon an Al Gore fund-raiser. Perhaps it was the presence of bomb-sniffing dogs, or the serious young men and women talking into palm-held microphones.

The event was designed to be a sounding board for Presidential candidates wishing to address a key voting bloc: Irish Catholics. This year, only the Vice President showed up, along with a flurry of Democratic politicians from New York. He didn’t disappoint them with his pledges to keep the Northern Ireland peace process a priority. “I want you to know that in a Gore Administration, we would stand ready at a moment’s notice to support the process in any way that the parties find useful,” he said. He wore a green necktie borrowed from lawyer Brian O’Dwyer, son of the legendary civil rights activist Paul O’Dwyer.

Some in the audience were surprised that neither of the two Republican candidates showed up. George W. Bush, of course, had been battling the Bob Jones University issue, and here was a perfect opportunity to address an overwhelmingly Catholic audience. And one of John McCain’s key supporters, Representative Peter King, also happens to be a key player in the American effort to mediate peace in Northern Ireland.

There was plenty of time to discuss the no-shows, because the audience waited three hours for Mr. Gore to make his appearance. Various speakers, including Representative Joseph Crowley of Queens, tried their best to keep the audience entertained. A singer sang “Danny Boy.” And finally Mr. Crowley, who specializes in his rendition of the Irish national anthem, started singing “American Pie.” It wasn’t half bad.

–Patrick Markey

5:30 p.m., aboard the Straight Talk Express:

The media, so much a part of the John McCain insurgency, were in a good mood aboard the campaign bus. And the self-proclaimed straight talker himself, Mr. McCain, was positively effusive as he rolled into Syracuse in the early evening, hot on Mr. Bush’s heels. “We need to cure Allison’s [Mitchell of The New York Times ] addiction,” Mr. McCain announced. “Send her out to Betty Ford’s place.” Ms. Mitchell apparently is addicted to doughnuts.

A documentary film crew was riding the bus, which had two tables and several red leatherette captain’s chairs. Mr. McCain was sitting at a table, crammed next to two reporters in a seat meant for two.

“In every state so far, there has been big movement in the last 24 to 48 hours, and there has been big movement that defies the predictions,” he said. “I don’t know why there’s this movement that goes on, but it defies the models because we have such huge turnouts.”

Mr. McCain and his entourage boarded a plane for Rochester, where Mr. Bush had been earlier in the day. Mr. McCain was due to speak at the city’s Vietnam War Memorial at 8 p.m.

It was at the bottom of a hill, lit by red, white and blue lights. To get there, visitors have to walk down a long, winding stone path, which was lined with people waiting for a chance to glimpse Mr. McCain. Many of those interviewed said they had never attended a political rally before, and many couldn’t remember when they last voted.

As the Senator began to speak, someone accidentally unplugged the sound feed to the TV cameras and radio reporters, so no one recorded his remarks about dirty money. This breakdown was not surprising. The McCain team seemed to have sound problems everywhere. The campaign frequently didn’t have a staff member on site until the Senator arrived, relying instead on local volunteers, who had never done anything like this before.

The sound system returned just in time for the press to hear Mr. McCain tell a now-familiar story about a fellow prisoner of war who sewed a U.S. flag on his uniform even after being “rather severely beaten” by his captors for doing so. “I want to tell you that this is an evening that I will remember as long as I live about this wonderful time in this great campaign,” he said as he wrapped up an emotional night.

–Andrea Bernstein

March 5

8 p.m., 92nd Street Y, Manhattan:

The pashminas were flying, a woman handed out buttons that said “Gore” in Hebrew, and when a kid in a yarmulke went to the mike the crowd interrupted him with applause when he said that he went to Bronx Science. It was Al Gore Night at the 92d Street Y, and it felt like a homecoming.

If there are Clintonisms (evasions) and Bushisms (idiotic blather), then there’s Gorespeak. It’s a combination of high-flown imagery and diplomatic roundaboutness that we’ll probably be hearing for the next four years, so might as well get used to it now. Gorespeak sounds like a butler got ahold of the microphone. “If you entrust me with the Presidency, the first action I will take, if you give me that privilege …” he will say.

“When we move step by step toward universal health care, for all,” Mr. Gore will say. Containing two hedges (step by step, toward) and two declarations, it’s almost meaningless.

At the 92d Street Y, I was disappointed. The Vice President was wearing his Sopranos outfit, a black shirt and a jacket, and he threw the mike stand over like James Brown, the mike stand that Carl McCall had adjusted, and held the mike by the wire, lassoing the wire deftly behind his back. He put on a pinched, vinegary face to mimic the Republicans talking reform and did an Oprah thing with the crowd asking how many of them were grandparents. He was warm and even haimische .

Mr. Gore also seemed tired, it was the end of a long day through New England, and he seemed to slur his speech just a little bit. He was a little round-shouldered and red-faced, and for a second I thought he was drunk. I imagined that on the plane from Rhode Island they had gotten new polling data showing he was a lock, and he had had a Maker’s Mark, or two.

The next morning, a Monday, I tried my drinking line on a bunch of people. Two Gore staff members said, “Oh, no”–as if it were wrong to have a drink after a long day–and laughed uncomfortably. They said Mr. Gore had been evolving for weeks, getting more comfortable. Almost all the reporters said I was wrong, too, and one said that Mr. Gore has a natural sibilance, that his tongue strikes his lower teeth especially when he’s tired, and that’s what sounded to me like a slur.

But another reporter said there was something chemical about: Mr. Gore is always better at night. “Gore after dark,” he put it.

Then Mr. Gore came out, and he was very somber. I thought he looked hung over. He came out with the major Jewish presidents and it was a whole different Al from the night before. He had on a blue shirt and purple tie, and his hair seemed flattened from leaden sleep. His hands were at his sides, like an undertaker’s. The audience was all these V.S.J.’s, Very Serious Jews, and the Gorespeak was at a level I had never heard in my life. Flocks of oily words flying from his mouth.

“The hypothetical circumstances surrounding that are so numerous as to make it unwise to construct a little box and get inside it.… There have not been such steps as would cross the threshold of damage to our ability to perform a constructive role … The answer to your question must be addressed in the status of final negotiations, but the outcome is hardly in doubt, and my desires are the same as your desires … Because of the preponderance of our founders who wrote the Constitution in reaction to a widespread experience with religious persecution in the years leading up to our founding, we have made that a core principle … I’d like to end by building upon those words … As James Madison said in the Federalist Papers, leading up to the founding of our Republic …”

It was an amazing performance in human dullness, and drove all the reporters out of the room. I heard one say, “Did you hear anything?” and in the van to Brooklyn, I looked at a reporter’s schedule of events for that day that someone on the Gore staff had interspersed with humorous statements to the press. “Attire: grass skirts and sunglasses; margaritas are not optional.”

I guess I’m not the only one who prefers Gore after dark.

–Philip Weiss

March 6

Noon, Lutheran Medical Center, Brooklyn:

Despite his brave attempts at speaking the language of the largely Hispanic audience, Al Gore didn’t exactly wow the crowd of about 100 hospital workers. But they were his people nonetheless, and they rushed forward afterward to shake his hand. The campaign sound man cued the O’Jays’ “Love Train.”

“Thank you,” the Vice President said over and over again as he went down the row of purple-shirted members of Local 1199, the municipal hospital workers’ union.

A knot of reporters crowded nearby around U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary and prospective gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, who was explaining how Mr. Gore was perfectly positioned to beat up either George W. Bush or John McCain.

A few feet away, U.S. Small Business Administration director Aida Alvarez waited to take questions. Two aides circulated among the media to let them know that she, too, would take their questions.

“You know, [Mr. Cuomo] is a Cabinet member, and Ms. Alvarez is a Cabinet member,” an aide pointed out to Kerri Lyon, one of the young stars of New York 1.

“I know,” answered Ms. Lyon, smiling politely.

“Would you like to speak to her?” asked the aide.

“No, thanks,” Ms. Lyon said, gesturing toward Mr. Cuomo. “We’re waiting for him.”

–Josh Benson