The on-again, off-again debates between Al Gore and Bill Bradley, the rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, are off. Again. Sort of. But stay tuned.
The chairmen of the two campaigns exchanged letters Thursday pointing fingers at each other for intransigence in arranging debates leading up to the primaries and caucuses in 16 states, including California, on March 7.
The Gore and Bradley camps do agree on one thing: Both men will debate Feb. 21 at the Apollo Theater in New York, sponsored by Time magazine and CNN, and March 1 in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and CNN.
Negotiations for other debates, however, have fallen apart, and each side accused the other of breaking off negotiations.
Tony Coelho, Gore's campaign chairman, said in a letter to Douglas C. Berman, his counterpart in Bradley's headquarters, that "your campaign chose to abruptly end our debate negotiations today."
Eric Hauser, Bradley's spokesman, took a different view. "Their description of these events has an 'Alice in Wonderland' quality."
Gore has proposed since late in the fall that the two candidates debate twice a week and promise to drop their television advertising. He made the proposal as Bradley's campaign was surging.
The vice president has renewed the proposal in recent weeks, sticking to his demand that advertising be taken off the air, a move that would hamstring Bradley's now-sagging effort to connect with voters in large states where television is the most direct way to attract support.
With Bradley opening a new advertising campaign, Coelho wrote to Berman: "Perhaps it is not just a coincidence that your campaign has resumed its TV ads--and ended debate negotiations--on the very same day. In fact, you have just made a commitment to spend additional millions of dollars on 30-second spots."
In his letter to Coelho, Berman said it "was with considerable disappointment" that he learned Gore could not take part in a debate on Feb. 16. He added: "This new turn of events leads me to conclude that the vice president is not seriously committed to having our representatives work out an agreed upon series of nationally covered debates and joint appearances that would inform Democratic primary voters and caucus goers leading up to March 7."
The back-and-forth occurred as both candidates worked crowds in Los Angeles. Surrounded by the emotional testimony of Los Angeles-area residents scarred by gun violence, a somber Bradley reiterated his vow to enact tough gun control if elected president.
Bradley also charged Gore with having a pro-gun record while in Congress. His campaign handed out letters written to National Rifle Assn. members in the 1980s praising Gore as "a friend" of gun owners for fighting gun registration and a ban on armor-piercing ammunition. Aides also distributed a new Time magazine article quoting an NRA official who calls Gore "NRA man of the year" because he voted against gun control legislation while in Congress.
Now, Bradley charged, Gore says Bradley's plan to register and license all handguns is "impractical." Gore supports registration of new handguns.
"The essence of leadership is to take on that which is considered too hard to do and make it happen," Bradley said, speaking before about 100 people in the library of El Sereno Middle School, as drizzle fell outside. "That's what leaders do, as opposed to politicians."
Gore, in a written statement, sought to turn attention away from the gun votes and to overall crime-control measures, saying that there is now little difference between the two candidates on gun control and that Bradley has not presented a comprehensive plan to continue bringing down crime rates.
Gore, at County-USC Medical Center, also reiterated his criticism that Bradley's health care plan would destroy Medicaid and would not protect Medicare.
Meanwhile, in the duel of endorsements, Gore today is expected to win the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian rights group. On Thursday, Bradley rolled out an endorsement by basketball superstar Michael Jordan.
But Gore's spokesman Chris Lehane also had a basketball giant in the vice president's camp. "We've got Shaquille O'Neal," Lehane said. "He's bigger."
Jay Leno has no qualms about candidates using "The Tonight Show" as a whistle-stop. F2