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WHITE HOUSE WATCH by Richard S. Dunham September 27, 1999

Gore Grabs the First Jump Ball from Bradley
In their initial one-on-one, the Veep edged out his rival. But both showed they'd be tough foes for George W.

As a pro basketball star with the New York Knicks, Bill Bradley was a tremendous team player, a quick thinker who moved well without the ball. But when it came to one-on-one ball, he was so-so. That's pretty much how it was on Sept. 25, when Presidential candidate Bradley went one-on-one for the first time with his 2000 Democratic primary rival, Vice-President Al Gore. Once again, Gore showed that reports of his political death may be greatly exaggerated.

The venue for the showdown was back-to-back addresses at the Democratic National Committee's fall meeting in Washington, D.C. The VIP audience was stacked in favor of Gore, who has the overwhelming support of the party Establishment. The referees included several hundred members of the national media -- looking for goofs, gaffes, and other assorted airballs.

The result was a close contest, with Gore scoring a few more points. Actually, both candidates performed well -- in the parlance of pundits, they exceeded expectations. No major mistakes. Just two good (if not inspiring) speeches by smart politicians.

SET SHOT. Bradley's 31-minute speech just wasn't as flashy as Gore's. His rhetoric didn't soar. It was a set shot, not a Phi Slamma Jamma reverse dunk. But solid team play was in evidence: Bradley seemed to reassure party regulars that he was an acceptable alternative if their preferred choice falls apart in early primaries.

The speeches emphasized liberal issues near and dear to the hearts of Democratic activists. The duo differed little on substance, and the only criticisms of each other were indirect and muted. Gore noted that he has always opposed school vouchers, alluding to the fact that Bradley has reversed his earlier support for voucher experiments. Bradley called for "a spirited debate of ideas" without personal attacks. "We can show people that politics doesn't have to be about negative campaigning," he said.

Bradley's themes included economic advancement for have-nots, gun registration, environmental protection, racial reconciliation, health care, and campaign-finance reform. Gore endorsed affirmative action, gun control, abortion rights, union organizing, increased school funding, protection of Social Security, and improved mental-health coverage.

"WE CAN WIN." Gore's main mission at the DNC meeting was tactical, not substantive. The Vice-President wanted to send a message to party regulars that his campaign isn't in trouble, as many political commentators have declared. A long-distance runner, Gore noted that the Presidential campaign "is a marathon and not a sprint. We can win this election."

His 35-minute speech reflected an evolving style. Gone are the dark suits and the stilted speaking style. The slimmed-down Veep wore earth tones and a stylish shirt and tie. Gore ventured out from behind the podium, speaking animatedly. He often gestured in a relaxed manner with his right arm, while his left hand remained in his pants pocket.

The new Gore style belies his reputation as a wooden speaker. But it'll take a long time for the new reality to overcome an image that was years in the making.

Bradley, on the other hand, seems comfortable with his image as a serious, sober policy expert. He delivered his speech with reading glasses perched on the edge of his nose. Nothing flashy there. Read his lips, not his gimmicks.

BUSH'S WEAK SPOTS. The bottom line: Gore acted Presidential. Bradley was nonthreatening and a credible alternative. Both reminded party loyalists of the high stakes involved in Election 2000. And they began to zero in on issues where they think Republican front-runner George W. Bush is vulnerable: his close ties to the gun lobby, his opposition to abortion, and his refusal to endorse anti-hate-crimes legislation in Texas.

Bush, with his $50 million-plus bank account, clearly remains the candidate to beat in the unfolding race. But Gore and Bradley showed on Sept. 25 that they're capable of playing ball on the same court as the early leader. And either one may still give Bush -- or any Republican alternative -- one heck of a fight for the White House.

Dunham, White House correspondent for Business Week, offers his views on Mondays for BW Online

EDITED BY DOUGLAS HARBRECHT _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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