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CAMPAIGN 2000

Bradley's Desire to Do Things His Way Proves to Be His Undoing

Democrats: He stuck to his message of big ideas, failing to adjust to different audiences and attacks. The lasting effect is that it made Gore a better candidate.

March 09, 2000|MATEA GOLD and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — Toward the end of his stump speech, Bill Bradley would pause, look out across his audience and explain to them his candidacy's guiding philosophy.

"This campaign," he would say slowly, "is based on the radical premise that you can tell people what you believe--and win."

The line almost always set off a round of enthusiastic applause and cheers. But it also revealed a stubbornness and shortsightedness that eventually tripped up his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, leading to the end of his campaign today after he lost every one of Tuesday's 16 primaries and caucuses.

Aides said Bradley would make the withdrawal announcement and endorse rival Al Gore at 8 a.m. (PST) in New Jersey.

The downward spiral of his insurgent campaign is the tale of a man so wedded to his approach that, many say, he missed opportunities to propel his candidacy forward. Supremely confident in his own vision and loathe to engage in what he viewed as pandering, Bradley stuck relentlessly to his message of big ideas and "new politics," failing to adjust to different audiences or the attacks of his nimble-footed opponent until it was too late.

"Gore changed the nature of the fight," said Democratic political pollster Geoff Garin. "Bradley seemed unwilling to deal with that or make any real alteration in his game plan."

Gore Benefited From Several Factors

Beating Gore was always an improbable task. The vice president had the benefit of President Clinton's backing, robust economic times and solid support from party leaders in virtually every state.

But after surprising the Gore camp with strong fund-raising and a surge in the polls last summer, Bradley suffered by failing to embrace the gritty realities of a tough race. He stayed his own path, surrounded by close advisors who in many cases could not, or would not, force him to confront the weaknesses of his campaign.

Despite his slips, many say Bradley's quixotic quest for the presidency left an indelible mark on this year's Democratic race, forcing Gore to better define himself and improve as a candidate, as the vice president himself has acknowledged. And while that no doubt is a poor consolation prize to the presidency, those close to Bradley regard his campaign with pride.

"Bill is who he is," said his wife, Ernestine Schlant Bradley, a few days before Tuesday's contests. "So he could not adjust to a system that works like politics as usual. I admire him so profoundly. I think he is so convinced of what he wanted to do. . . . If that doesn't bring us enough voters, well, then, at least we did it the right way."

When the former senator from New Jersey officially announced his candidacy last September in his boyhood home of Crystal City, Mo., his promise of a "new kind of politics" touched off a flattering spate of media coverage. But the same loftiness that set him apart ultimately became his undoing.

"The circle around him got infected with this hubris in September and October," said one advisor. "Ultimately, it was very debilitating to the campaign."

Reform Message Is Called Inconsistent

Some veteran observers of reform politics say that even Bradley's embrace of "new politics" was, at best, a light hug. His commitment to bettering the political process seemed tentative as he ultimately veered between the high moral ground and the attack mode in response to Gore's surgical strikes.

"He never stayed consistent to the reform message he preached," said Curtis B. Gans, political director of the 1968 presidential campaign of then-Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) and now head of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "If you're going to take the high road, you have to stay there. The mistake he made is that he responded to Gore's attacks at all."

As the cold Iowa winter set in, Bradley stumbled, torn between his high-minded tone and the pragmatic need to return Gore's fire.

"I think that if there was one single thing in reflection that was pivotal in our circumstance, it is that the Gore campaign stopped and retooled," said Jacques De Graff, national deputy campaign manager. "We did not effectively respond."

Time and time again, Gore ripped apart the signature aspect of Bradley's agenda: his sweeping plan for universal health care. Gore sneered at the provision for replacing Medicaid with direct subsidies as "$150 vouchers." Bradley was never able to neutralize that attack; he defended the $150 figure as "a weighted average" but left unclear what that meant in terms of people's daily lives.

"His mistake was that he thought he could circumvent the No. 1 rule of politics: If someone makes a salient attack on you, you can't stay holier than thou," said Democratic political consultant David Doak, who was neutral in the race.

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