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California and the West

Bradley on Diversity: Fervent, Vague

Speech: Riding a bump in attention to his White House prospects, he addresses race relations during an L.A. visit, but with little reference to California's ethnic struggles.

April 30, 1999|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Hoping to translate some newly minted Beltway buzz into firm progress for his presidential campaign in this crucial electoral state, former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley came to Los Angeles on Thursday to explore an issue that has dominated political dialogue here in this decade: race relations.

In doing so he provided a metaphor for his uneven presidential campaign itself: His speech, to the civic group Town Hall Los Angeles, was personal and heartfelt, different from typical political rhetoric, yet also bereft of specific governmental solutions and curiously removed from California.

Bradley's campaign, derided as a doomed lark only a month ago, has bumped up to flavor-of-the-month status based on two early presidential markers: money and polls.

First, the former New York Knicks forward and 18-year senator raised nearly $4.3 million in the first quarter, well behind the $7 million raised by his only Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, but more than many Washington analysts had expected.

Simultaneously, Democrats have had to fight their rising panic as two potential GOP nominees--Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole--have consistently defeated Gore in hypothetical matchups.

Those elements--and Gore's recent penchant for verbal overreaches, such as his claim to have created the Internet--have some in the party casting about for a savior, and the only possibility on the horizon is Bradley.

Rob Tully, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said in an interview that Bradley is booming in his state, which along with New Hampshire typically defines the shape of the presidential contest.

"He's got something going on," said Tully, who described recent Bradley crowds in half a dozen venues as "phenomenal."

Bradley also has begun organizing his field operation in Iowa, a lack of which spells doom for a candidate competing in that caucus state. Tully said Gore, whose campaign is widely seen as top-heavy, has yet to begin that elemental endeavor.

"As Bradley's organizing goes on, I expect the sleeping giant to wake up, and everyone and their brother will descend on Iowa," Tully said.

Separately, Bradley plans a 10-day trip through California in mid-June, an unprecedented early block of campaigning that he hopes will boost his chances here. California's primary, to be held next March 7, is one of a group of state match-ups that immediately follow the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Although he has gotten a boost from Gore's difficulties, Bradley has yet to demonstrate competitive strength on his own, with the exception of his money-raising prowess.

While Gore was losing handily to Bush in a New Hampshire poll whose results were released this week, the vice president was still topping Bradley by 2 to 1. Similar results were found in separate polls in Oklahoma and Michigan.

For now, Bradley's apparent plan is to ride his celebrity and the current bump of attention as far as it will go this spring, raising money all the while, then fill in the details next fall and winter, when voters' minds are more likely to be tuned in to the presidential contest.

Bradley never mentioned Gore by name in Thursday's Town Hall speech. His only reference came when he touted his own plans in a question-and-answer session afterward with reporters.

"This is not going to be an effort with little, small ideas that are blown up with rhetoric," he said, alluding to Gore's announced plans to deal with traffic congestion and compensation for baggage lost by airlines. "It's going to be an effort to try to confront some of the fundamental issues of our time."

There was little confrontation in Bradley's speech, however. He gently. if lengthily, urged his audience to face their own views on race and share them with others.

But he offered only one glancing reference to two controversial measures this decade that revolved around race: 1994's Proposition 187, which sought to ban most government benefits for illegal immigrants, and 1996's Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action in state and local government. He said they demonstrated "what happens when wedge politicians use race and ethnicity to fan the flames of suspicion and indifference."

Bradley also recounted, in two sentences, his indignation at the beating of motorist Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. But the remainder of his speech was virtually identical to one delivered last week in New York that focused on a controversial police shooting there. He did not mention the riots that followed the initial court verdicts in the King case--seven years ago Thursday.

Many of Bradley's proposals were personal and not governmental in nature, but he did call for a "deeply felt" effort to help the nation's poorest children.

"Improving the life chances of children who are poor can become the North Star of our society," he said, "a reference point by which we measure our actions, our progress and our self-respect."

Asked later for details, he said he would announce specifics this fall.

*

Hear a recording of Bill Bradley's speech Thursday at Town Hall Los Angeles on The Times' Web site: http://www.latimes.com/bradley.

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