WASHINGTON -- Rep. Richard Gephardt's decision not to run for the Democratic presidential nomination clears another obstacle from the path of Vice President Al Gore.
But the real beneficiary is probably Bill Bradley as the lone challenger to Mr. Gore. He becomes the candidate not only of his own admirers, but also of other Democrats who won't support Mr. Gore.
In a situation like this, the first imperative for any challenger is to establish oneself as the most realistic alternative to the leading candidate. That is why, for example, there are so many Republican candidates sniping at Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. He is the front-runner and the Lamar Alexanders and Steve Forbeses of the world would like to goad him into a fight so they would be seen as his most serious competitors. Fat chance.
Part of the problem is the fact that the news media in general and the television networks in particular seem unable to focus on more than two candidates and chew gum at the same time.
That phenomenon has been obvious for years. In the 1988 Republican contest, for example, Jack Kemp never managed to break through the media's perception of the contest as solely between then-Vice President George Bush and Bob Dole, then the Republican leader in the Senate.
Mr. Bradley is not assured of a clear field indefinitely, of course. The withdrawals of Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota already have simplified the competition, but Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is still a possibility who would not be taken lightly.
As the House minority leader, however, Mr. Gephardt had special stature when juxtaposed against Mr. Gore, with whom he has had a long and uneven political relationship. For one thing, Mr. Gephardt enjoyed strong support among leaders of organized labor, some of whom have harbored doubts about Mr. Gore because of his identification with President Clinton's trade policies.
It was far from certain, however, that Mr. Gephardt could have mounted a serious threat to the vice president. Some strategists were convinced he was too much a throwback to New Deal liberalism to prosper among more moderate and conservative Democrats today. The same description may apply to Mr. Kerry, although he is so little known nationally he essentially has a clean slate with most voters.
Mr. Bradley is coming at Mr. Gore from a different angle. He is offering himself as the independent politician who became so disgusted with Washington politics that he quit the Senate four years ago and now runs as an outsider.
But Mr. Bradley doesn't make it easy for the press and political community to categorize him. He refuses to make explicit comparisons between himself and Mr. Gore and he hasn't spelled out alternative positions on a long list of issues. His prime concerns, he says, are the health and welfare of children and the unhappy state of race relations. Indeed, his long history of speaking out against racism has given Mr. Bradley a special connection to some black leaders, which may or may not be an asset in primaries.
Most of all, Mr. Bradley is advancing himself as a man who marches to his own drummer on his own timetable, just as he did at Princeton, as a Rhodes Scholar and as a professional basketball star before coming to the Senate in 1978. He was willing to admit 12 years ago that he would like to be president, but he insisted the timing wasn't right. Now he says it is.
For Mr. Gephardt, the opposite is true. He ran in 1988, then missed what might have been his best chance in 1992. Now Mr. Gore's strength -- coupled with the prospect that Mr. Gephardt might become speaker of the House -- have convinced the Missouri Democrat to sit this one out.
Considering what happened in 1988, it would be ironic if Mr. Gephardt's withdrawal ultimately caused a problem for Mr. Gore, who was most responsible for Mr. Gephardt's elimination that year.
Mr. Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses and then finished behind Michael Dukakis in the New Hampshire primary. Mr. Gore was an also-ran in both. In the Southern regional primary, Mr. Gore diluted the anti-liberal vote against Mr. Dukakis that otherwise might have gone to Mr. Gephardt. In the end, both of them lost.
It is obviously a bit of a stretch to write a scenario where Mr. Gore is defeated. But Mr. Bradley is better off with Mr. Gephardt on the sidelines.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 2/05/99