Is It All Over?

It was a later night than Al Gore wanted, but in the end, he got the result in New Hampshire that he needed--a slim but measurable victory over former Senator Bill Bradley in the state where Bradley arguably had the best shot of beating the vice president. But by making Gore's margin of victory so narrow, Bradley also achieved a victory of sorts, earning the right to keep the fight going at least until the California and New York primaries on March 7. The real story coming out of New Hampshire, however, was less the margin of victory, or even victory itself, than the biting edge of anger and personal confrontation that was introduced into the race in its final days.

As their New Hampshire campaign drew to a close, Bradley and his senior aides collapsed the difference between engaging on the issues and mounting fierce personal attacks--a fact that seemed both to help and to hurt Bradley. Voters sensed that he was finally fighting back, but not enough of them liked the nasty edge.

Dragging the nomination battle into the spring will entail obvious costs for the Democrats, unless the campaign can return to a higher road of spirited debate on the issues. Having once gone for the jugular, Bradley can hardly pull back. The question now is whether Bradley will be able to make his last stand on something more than anger-- on principled differences with the vice president.

By almost every measure, New Hampshire was the ideal state for Bill Bradley's campaign. The demographic makeup of the state's Democratic Party is heavily weighted toward the upscale white voters who comprise Bradley's primary base of support. New Hampshire has a large independent population that can be counted upon to be both ideologically liberal and receptive to a campaign message implicitly hostile to the present Democratic administration.

But whatever the merits of Bradley's critique, taking the vice president to task on issues that Republicans have already been using to pummel the administration can't have a great deal of saliency in an exclusively Democratic electorate. The vice president can look forward to the southern primaries, where he'll be a prohibitive favorite, and to California and New York with their large concentrations of minorities and union households--his core constituencies.

The new dynamics of the race could easily become an intra-party debate over Clintonism itself. Personal animus toward the president and, by proxy, the vice president, has always been an element of Bradley's effort, but never the sum of it. That is one factor that has enabled Bradley to garner striking support across a wide ideological spectrum. In the coming primaries, relatively fewer Democratic voters may seem receptive to such a message. But to date, anti-Clintonism seems the only message that has given Bradley traction against Gore's rejuvenated campaign.

Many in and around Bradley's campaign say that one of the most persuasive voices urging Bradley on to his new combative ways was retiring Senator Bob Kerrey, one of Bradley's three supporters in the Senate, who spent most of the last week in New Hampshire campaigning with Bradley. Kerrey lost his fight for the Democratic nomination to Bill Clinton in 1992, finishing up with a series of personal attacks on Clinton strikingly similar to those Bradley is now using against Vice President Gore. Kerrey played on the full panoply of Clinton's personal liabilities, telling voters that if he didn't do it, Republicans would in November (he had famously said that George Bush the elder would open Clinton up "like a soft peanut"). Kerrey's embitterment over that strug-gle has never waned, and his ill-feeling toward Clinton has shown itself on repeated occasions over the past seven years. The unfortunate legacy of Bradley's near come-from-behind win may be to divert the campaign from the heretofore useful debate over reconciling the party's principles with the pragmatic virtues of Clintonism, and toward an acrimonious blood-letting that will serve no clear purpose.

After dramatically trending toward Gore in the final weeks, New Hampshire voters veered back toward Bradley in the campaign's last four days. Late-deciding voters broke mostly for Bradley. This itself is a reminder of the volatility of the campaign.

Since the final days of the New Hampshire primary, Bradley's empha-sis on universal health care and ending child poverty has greatly diminished. The issues aren't gone, exactly. They've just become pieces in a larger puzzle, props in a deeper struggle between what Bradley has taken to calling the Old Politics (represented by Gore, his lying ways, his spin-meisters, and his pollsters) and the New Politics (represented by Bradley, his candor and authenticity, his idealism and honesty, and yes, his big ideas).

Four days before the primary, in a little gazebo in the town center of Keene, New Hampshire, the Bradley campaign finally moved off the dime, lashing out with a long-expected series of pointed attacks on the vice president's character. The woman who started off the event did so with a string of invidious comparisons between Bradley and Gore. "Bill Bradley is the only candidate whose integrity is unquestioned. Bill Bradley is the one candidate who we can trust to tell the truth," and so on. Former Republican Senator Lowell Weicker, now a maverick independent, made the case for Bradley among independent voters. At 69, Weicker, an imposing bundle of integrity, profundity, and resentment, lashed into the Clinton-Gore administration on Bradley's behalf for its various ethical lapses.

Paul Wellstone warmed up the crowd for Bill Bradley (a good thing, because the thermometer hovered a few degrees below zero) with the enthusiasm and style of a college cheerleader, dipping his voice, ramping it back up, joking, stopping, starting, speeding up, slowing down. Wellstone was utterly loose and unrehearsed and terribly fun. He was frank, funny, candid, passionate, and well to the left of almost everyone else in public life today, and I couldn't help thinking to myself, in the most complimentary sense imaginable: How the hell did this guy ever get elected to the Senate? And that's the irony of the moment. If there really is a New Politics, some happy alternative to Clintonism, it's not Bill Bradley, but Paul Wellstone.

When Bradley finally took the mike, some of the Minnesota senator's whimsy rubbed off on him. As a whole, Bill Bradley's new cam-paign style isn't really more aggressive or even more negative. Just as it was prior to Iowa, the hallmark of Bradley's campaign message is Bradley--his integrity, his candor, his quest. What's new is his anger. And that's a slender reed for a New Politics.

In Nashua, where the two candidates gave back-to-back speeches at a Democratic Party fundraiser, the entire tenor of the evening seemed to box Bradley in. The Gore backer who introduced the vice president spent a good bit of her time praising Bradley, even quoting from John McPhee's 1965 paean to Bradley, A Sense of Where You Are. As Gore himself did a bit later, she acted as if this was a Democratic unity dinner, metaphorically tossing clumps of dirt on Bradley's coffin before he's even dead, thus setting Bradley up so his expected attacks on Gore would seem as out of place as possible.

Each man gave a speech that was able and compelling. For Bill Bradley, though, the problem was that his speech seemed able and compelling in a way most likely to help Al Gore. If you haven't heard Al Gore give a speech recently, you should. He's vastly improved. He still has a tendency to strike aquiline poses that have a decidedly Kabuki feel. But he now manages to convey passion without being boisterous and to demonstrate authority without appearing either programmed or condescending--abilities that used to elude him. At the same time, the content of his speeches has an almost symphonic force--mixing and lacing together themes that simultaneously talk up the Clinton administration, beat up on Repub-licans, question Bradley's political wisdom, and trumpet Gore's image as a fighter.

I hadn't expected much from Bradley that night. He'd just come off a devastating defeat in Iowa; the event was tailor-made to showcase Gore; and it wasn't an audience inclined to react warmly to any angry words directed at the vice president. But Bradley's speech was good, even very good. His touchstone was the president's State of the Union address, delivered the night before. All of the things the president had proposed, which Bradley now proposed in even more sweeping ways, would only be possible with the New Politics he was championing--a politics shorn of special-interest money, tactics over substance, and misleading campaign attacks, or to put it more specifically, shorn of Al Gore. Democrats, he told the audience, need to "clean our house, or the Republicans will clean it for us this fall."

Soon enough, though, he was segueing out of these barely veiled attacks on Gore to a sort of free-form prose poem about politics, belief, and human potential. He riffed on Eleanor Roosevelt and Toni Morrison, "the mystery of [the electoral] process," "the beauty of our dreams," the importance of an "awareness of our neighbors as human beings," and even "a world of new possibilities guided by goodness." Somehow, coming from Bradley's lips, none of it seemed preachy or precious. But sometimes you had to wonder whether Bill Bradley was running for president or a character in a Robert Frost poem. Where Gore bellowed his words out into his audience, Bradley's seemed to hover only a foot or so in front of him, pulling you in to listen. Through his speech, Bradley garnered a few polite rounds of applause. And at the end, the audience was totally silent. They didn't look bored but rather were rapt with attention. And yet it was the kind of speech that could be lyrical and utterly captivating while having next to no effect on who you think should be the nominee.

"What we're having is a vigorous debate on the issues," Gore's media man Bob Shrum told me the day before the primary. "The Lincoln-Douglas debates had that. Bradley seems to think it's supposed to be like a high school oratory contest, where whoever's speech is liked better wins."

One of New Hampshire's more redeeming qualities is the way it can capture the metaphoric dimensions of a campaign in concrete, humorous real-life moments. The Sunday night before the primary, I was walking to the Holiday Inn to meet a friend at the bar. The intersection just adjacent to the hotel was choked with campaign supporters yelling and screaming about their man, and I held my press badge as conspicuously as possible, trying to ward off the volunteers who might otherwise have mobbed me, thinking I was a potential voter. "Who doesn't take any soft money?" cheered one of the Bradley supporters. Then from the other side of the street someone yelled, "McCain doesn't." The voice came from the McCain crowd, which was appropriately enough catty-cornered, across the street and to the right of the Bradley people. Call it New Hampshire triangulation. Caught off guard for a moment, the Bradley guy collected his thoughts and then shouted back, "Oh. You're right. McCain too. McCain's cool." And then, fixing his sights back on the gaggle of Gore supporters across the street, he shouted a new battle cry: "Who else doesn't take soft money?"

It was a moment of levity, but a brief one. By Sunday night, Bradley had finally lowered the boom his staff had been promising since the previous Tuesday. That morning, after a week of on-again, off-again swipes at Gore's candor and integrity, Bradley called the vice president to task for his infamous appearance at a Clinton-Gore fundraiser held at a Buddhist temple in California in 1996. "Quite frankly, I think that more explanation is needed ... about his participation," Bradley told his audience. "And I believe that unless that explanation is forthcoming, the public will reject a candidacy in the fall that fails to come to terms with this circumstance in our Democratic Party in 1996. It's as simple as that." Only not quite that simple. In a revealing touch, Bradley couldn't even bring himself to say exactly what "circumstance" he was talking about, preferring instead to hold up a copy of a 1996 Forbes magazine article that makes the case against Gore for the Buddhist temple incident.

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times may have missed on a number of counts in her January 26 column, in which she compared Gore to Tony Soprano, the sympathetic mobster from the hit HBO series The Sopranos. Gore may not be as ruthless as Tony, but as the gangland cliché has it, to Gore it's not personal. Whether or not Gore distorted Bradley's record or said things he knew to be untrue, as Bradley repeatedly charged, none of his jabs at Bradley have really touched on his character or integrity. But perhaps more importantly, there is little personal venom in the Gore camp's attitude toward Bradley, even now. When I spoke to Gore's spokesman Chris Lehane, just after Bradley unleashed on Gore on Sunday, he said that Bradley had shown himself to be the kind of politician "who can't defend his issues on the merits ... [and] resorts to negative personal attacks. He's made a raw, crass political calculation because his agenda wasn't working." But there was no venom to match the rough talk. It was just spin, just words.

Do the Bradley people have any misgivings about the negative and strident tack their candidate has felt obliged to take? Apparently not. The constant refrain from almost every senior Bradley aide I spoke to is that Gore brought it all on himself. Far from seeming troubled by Bradley's new direction, they are pumped up and excited by it. "A lot of us were really nervous and tense coming back from Iowa," one senior Bradley staffer explained. "The debate was Wednesday, and we didn't know whether he would [fight back]. We were psyched when he finally pulled the trigger... . This is all about Al Gore's character," he told me a few minutes later as he walked back into the crowd.

On reflection, the Bradley operation really hasn't gone from taking the high road to the low road. A better way to look at it might be to say that it has gone from being serenely self-righteous to militantly so. This isn't an abandonment of the principles Bradley followed earlier; it is simply the other side of the coin of the feeling of moral superiority that has fueled and sustained the campaign from the outset. What makes Gore so odious in their eyes is that he's been negative for purely tactical reasons, not because of belief.

The Bradley camp seems to have real difficulty distinguishing debate on the issues from personal attack. The dispute over Bradley's health care plan is a case in point. Gore has played hardball with Bradley over the details of his plan. But has he really lied about it? Since late last fall, Gore has repeatedly charged that Bradley would abolish Medicaid without providing sufficient funds for current Medicaid recipients to purchase coverage under Bradley's plan. Gore's charge is so effective because it's true. Rather than offering specific refutation of Gore's charge, Bradley's top staffers take umbrage at the thought that Bill Bradley would ever leave Medicaid patients in the lurch. Bradley and his advisers seem to be asking for a pass on the details, a special pleading for their man's big ideas.

But if the Bradley campaign sometimes trips up its tactics with its passion, the opposite difficulty remains the Gore camp's primary liability--and probably accounts for Gore's close call in New Hampshire. The Gore campaign is technocratic to its core. The whiff of death that blew over the campaign last fall brought out the best in the vice president. But there still seems something inherently reactive about the man, and that applies to his campaign as well. From the moment Air Force Two landed in New Hampshire just hours after the Iowa win, the vice president reverted back to general election themes, not forsaking the digs at Bill Bradley but conspicuously relegating them to occasional mentions in his numerous speeches and appearances. On Gore's second day back in New Hampshire, in a visit to a circuit board manufacturer, he treated the company's employees to a startlingly substantive, but strikingly arcane, discussion of how transitional welfare-to-work programs should not only penalize deadbeat dads, but also seek to assist those willing to fulfill their parental responsibilities.

Bradley, it turned out, wasn't really quite dead yet. And his late rebound in the polls seemed to catch Gore's campaign off guard. Sensing a dip in the vice president's lead, the campaign scripted a stern response from Gore on Sunday afternoon. But it was almost too late, and they were lucky to get out of New Hampshire without a major embarrassment. The last minute turnabout speaks to a continuing, underlying volatility in the campaign, and it highlights how the vice president's operation still seems to run on mechanical rather than intuitive lines--a weakness that could cause other missteps later this fall. ¤