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CAMPAIGN 2000

As Some Aides Talk of Endgame, Bradley Stands His Ground

Democrats: Candidate sets sights on next week's contests. Worsening prospects lead to speculation within campaign.

March 02, 2000|MATEA GOLD and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Democratic presidential contender Bill Bradley insisted Wednesday that he is staying in the race, even after a crushing defeat in Washington state that all but extinguished his dim hopes of a last-minute surge.

"Mark Twain put it best when he said, 'The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,' " Bradley said Wednesday morning during a brief news conference at a Huntington Park community health clinic.

After spending five days campaigning in the Pacific Northwest, the candidate called his 37-percentage-point loss to Vice President Al Gore in Washington state Tuesday "a disappointment" but said he was still continuing on to next week's primaries.

"We're working hard and I feel really good," said Bradley, who looked weary but managed to muster a lighthearted tone. "I've said all along that March 7 is the takeoff time. That's when we have to win some primaries, and I think that's when we're going to surprise some people."

Yet while Bradley's closest aides staunchly insisted that he was not leaving the race now, other advisors acknowledged Wednesday that there has been growing sentiment among some of them that it would be best to pull the plug before the next round of votes.

That feeling appears to be strongest among advisors and supporters who are not longtime Bradley loyalists but rather operatives who signed on for his campaign because they liked Bradley and his left-of-center take on issues.

"Some of us have just reached that state of resignation where it seems absurd to go on," one said. "It's understandable that the senator wants to do this on his terms, but at this point he's just prolonging the misery."

Debate Over Strategy Exposes Widening Gap

The prickly debate has exposed widening fault lines in the Bradley camp between aides who are supportive of Bradley's hesitation in lashing at Al Gore and advisors desperate for him to "throw everything we've got at Gore," as one of them said.

Bradley denied that any advisor has asked him to consider leaving the race.

"Zero," he said, holding up his hand to form a circle. "Zero have come up to me and said they think I ought to drop out."

Even those who would like to see him end it now said that if the subject was broached with Bradley directly, the candidate would quickly bridle at the idea.

"Bill Bradley has a very high tolerance of pain," said one advisor. "He showed it as a basketball player and he's shown it in the last few weeks."

The internal debate has mirrored Bradley's own flailing on the campaign trail between the hard-edged candidate who tilts at Gore for not supporting liberal causes and the retiring Democratic loyalist who has shrunk at mounting a full-bore attack on the vice president for campaign finance lapses.

Aide Complains of Mixed Signals

"The problem is that the decision-making structure has basically shut down," said one veteran campaign staffer. "One day you get one signal, the next day you get something else."

Bradley's die-hard senior staff--among them campaign director Douglas Berman, campaign manager Gina Glantz, communications director Anita Dunn and spokesman Eric Hauser--have been firm in saying that there are no schisms within the campaign operation.

"This campaign is unanimous in its aggressive drive to go forward to March 7," Hauser said. "The senior staff are all . . . saying the same thing."

All these top aides have either come out of Bradley's Senate campaigns in New Jersey or joined early in his Senate career.

"The fact that none of them are showing any cracks tells you something," said one aide. "They're the people closest to him and they're still talking tough. Everybody else may be ready to go home, but as long as Bradley has that united front around him, it's a good bet he's not ready to end it either."

But even as they've tried to put a brave face on the situation, some senior staff have found it hard to mask their distress, bristling at questions about why Bradley is staying in the race.

"There are millions of people who believe in what Bill Bradley believes," Dunn said bluntly Wednesday afternoon. "Why wouldn't he compete?"

Meanwhile, Bradley became the third candidate to start airing a Spanish-language ad in California on Thursday, highlighting his proposals on universal health care, gun control and putting more qualified teachers in schools.

His top aides described him as energized for the next week of campaigning in New York and around New England.

"We're moving on," Bradley said.

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