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National Perspective | Washington Outlook

To Challenge Gore, Bradley Needs to Look Beyond Volvo Democrats

May 17, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

MERRIMACK, N.H. — In New Hampshire, Bill Bradley's admirers tend to resemble the candidate himself: earnest, well-meaning, well-educated.

On what must have been dress-down Wednesday at Fidelity Investments' campus-like offices here last week, Bradley wowed an audience of young and fit investment managers in polo shirts and khaki pants. The morning before he drew raves from a tweed-coat and salt-and-pepper beard crowd at nearby Rivier College. "He stands out as the intellectual person . . . who tries to understand issues in depth," enthused Art Kubick, director of the school's Peace and Social Justice Center.

Bradley's appeal to the professors at Rivier and the affluent young professionals at Fidelity captures both the defining challenge and greatest opportunity of his uphill campaign to wrest the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination from Vice President Al Gore. The opportunity comes here in New Hampshire, where voters like these are plentiful. The challenge comes when next year's primary schedule reaches the Midwest and South, where they are much more scarce.

New Hampshire presents a unique Democratic primary electorate. It is virtually all white, heavily college educated (nearly 55% with four-year degrees or better) and open to independents (who can vote in either party's primary here and are steadily growing in number). That's made this fertile territory for candidates like Bradley: cerebral, reforming liberals who write books (extra points for fiction), display a sense of irony about the electoral process and position themselves as Politicians Who Don't Do Politics as Usual.

It's possible to trace this affinity back through the New England enthusiasm for the reforming gentleman mugwumps of the 1870s. In our times, think of Eugene McCarthy, the poet-prophet of the anti-war movement, who fatally wounded President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary. Even closer precedents are Gary Hart, who promised "new ideas" and trounced front-runner Walter F. Mondale here in 1984; and Paul E. Tsongas, who belittled Bill Clinton as a "pander bear" and beat him here in 1992.

Though Bradley is trailing Gore in the initial New Hampshire polls, the former New Jersey senator has that same potential. In the right home, it's easy to imagine a Bradley bumper sticker becoming a lifestyle statement, like a solar panel or a set of garden tools from the Smith & Hawken catalog.

At this stage, Bradley's campaign is more a mood than a movement. His stump speech is long on aspirations (maintaining the strong economy, attacking childhood poverty) and short on specific policy intentions; those, he says, will come this fall. In the meantime, he talks about growing up in a small town, restoring trust in government and cleaning up campaign finance. He also reflects on the spiritual yearning he detects in the country--"a search for some meaning in life that is deeper than the material."

Some of this is provocative and some is idiosyncratically charming (especially when he talks about his own life). But much of it is maddeningly vague. Portions of his speech cry out for a paperweight.

There is, however, a demonstrated audience for this sort of high-minded reform message in the Democratic Party and Bradley is finding it in New Hampshire. One after another, supporters at his events last week said they liked him because he was fresh, thoughtful, unpolitical. "It was always the same story; he was the one sane voice in the midst of all the craziness in Washington," said Boyce Greer, a gregarious investment manager at Fidelity (and Tsongas supporter in 1992), who hosted a party for Bradley at his spectacular hillside home.

Bradley's problem is that there are only so many well-educated, socially liberal money managers who vote in Democratic primaries. Like Tsongas and Hart, Bradley in early New Hampshire polls is running better among college graduates than those without advanced degrees. His appeal to those Volvo Democrats could allow him to threaten Gore in other states along the coasts--prominently California and New York--where the Democratic primary also includes a large share of college graduates (though generally not the political independents who give Bradley a second boost here).

But the good-government, politics-of-meaning message Bradley is offering has traditionally had much less allure for minority and working-class white voters, who tend to look to their religious leaders for spiritual meaning and to their political leaders for tangible responses to their day-to-day problems. Both Hart and, even more so, Tsongas were flattened when the schedule turned toward Southern and Midwestern primaries, where college graduates typically comprise only about 40% of the Democratic electorate.

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