WASHINGTON -- By hinting at an independent bid for president, retiring Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey has in one sweep underscored the dissatisfaction among Democrats with President Clinton and highlighted how suddenly the 1996 campaign could be transformed.
But Mr. Bradley's announcement also highlighted the difficulty of such a bid: An independent candidate would get no federal funds to run a general-election campaign, while the Democratic and Republican nominees would each get $60 million.
Mr. Bradley, in a New Jersey news conference yesterday, ruled out any plan to challenge Mr. Clinton in the Democratic primaries but repeatedly left open the idea of running as an independent. Some suggested that he could form an independent ticket with retired Gen. Colin L. Powell at the top.
"I have not ruled out an independent route," said the former New York Knicks star. "If it would help get this country back in the right direction, I would consider it. My objective is to get the political process to focus on the lives of people who are now
disconnected from it."
Mr. Bradley said yesterday that he called about 120 people to inform them about his decision, including General Powell. A Powell spokesman said the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff missed Mr. Bradley's call and that the two do not know each other well.
lTC The possibility that Mr. Bradley, who made his mark in the Senate on tax reform and foreign policy issues, could run as an independent has caused concern among the Democratic supporters of Mr. Clinton. They note that Mr. Bradley could pull away votes from the president and help elect a Republican, just as some say independent Ross Perot helped defeat President George Bush in 1992.
White House spokeswoman Ginny Terzano, in a telephone interview from Mr. Clinton's vacation spot in Wyoming, said that Mr. Bradley mentioned nothing about an independent presidential run when he told the president on Wednesday that he was retiring.
Ms. Terzano said that Mr. Bradley's comments about an independent bid are the result of his "general frustration with politics," and she predicted that Mr. Bradley would work for Mr. Clinton's re-election next year.
While some Bradley associates speculated that the senator is more likely to run in 2000 -- when Mr. Bradley would be 57 years old -- others said his current appeal is clear. In an age of cynicism about politicians, Mr. Bradley is regarded by many as a hero for his basketball career as well as his scholarship and political leadership.
But Mr. Bradley, who narrowly won re-election in 1990 and was considered vulnerable to a GOP Senate challenge in 1996, has been criticized for being an uninspiring speaker and having a passion for dry, academic issues, such as Third World debt. At the same time, Mr. Bradley has attracted attention for some efforts, including his 1992 civil rights speech in which he said that "race remains our unsolved dilemma."
Former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, who has urged General Powell to run for president, said he met with Mr. Bradley a few months ago. Mr. Tsongas said the major parties have failed to provide leadership, and as a result, he said, there is an opening for a third presidential candidate, "whether it is Powell .. or Bradley."
Mr. Bradley would face an enormous challenge if he were to run as an independent because it is so costly to meet ballot-access rules in the states.
"One of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans have conspired upon is protecting the security of the two-party system," said Terry Holt, a political organizer and press secretary for the presidential campaign of Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana. "The independent candidacy is a rich man's game."
Mr. Perot spent $68.3 million, mostly his own money, to get on the 1992 ballot in every state and run for president.
Moreover, federal election laws are geared heavily against an independent candidate. Each of the nominees of the two major parties is eligible for $60 million in public financing for the general election. An independent candidate is eligible for "nothing," said Sharon Snyder, a spokeswoman for the Federal Election Commission.
"Ultimately, I doubt he will end up running," political analyst Charles Cook said. "It is just so difficult, and it would foreclose any possibility of running in the year 2000 for the Democratic nomination. Bradley has always struck me as a cautious guy."