WASHINGTON -- In December 1987, a political reporter encountered Bill Bradley on a flight from Miami back to Washington. For the entire trip, more than two hours, the senator from New Jersey questioned the reporter in detail about the early developments in the 1988 presidential election campaign.
"If you're so interested," the reporter asked, "why don't you run?" Mr. Bradley paused for a moment, then replied: "The timing isn't right. I'm not ready to do it."
Twelve years later, Mr. Bradley has decided that the right time has arrived. That's despite the fact that he must challenge an incumbent vice president for the nomination he might have won far more easily against weak opposition in 1988.
He may be right. Although Vice President Al Gore is a strong favorite for the nomination, Mr. Bradley already has demonstrated impressive strength in the six months leading up to his formal declaration of candidacy.
The most recent opinion polls in New Hampshire show him no more than 4 percentage points behind Mr. Gore, within the statistical margin of error. And he is either ahead of Mr. Gore or close to even in California and New York, whose big primaries will be the critical battleground after the New Hampshire vote.
To some extent, Mr. Bradley is enjoying the benefits of circumstances he did nothing to create. Because he is the only Democrat with the temerity to challenge Mr. Gore, he is the obvious vehicle for any Democrats who want an alternative for whatever reason.
And Mr. Bradley is getting far more press attention than he would have if other leading Democrats had entered the race.
Perhaps even more significant is the context of the campaign. Americans are fed up with politics and politicians and, despite his 18 years in the Senate, Mr. Bradley is a candidate who walked away from Washington five years ago and is seen by many as an outsider. Because of his history as a basketball star, he also benefits from being viewed as a celebrity, not just another politician.
Meanwhile, the Gore campaign has seemed somewhat unsettled. Mr. Gore has set off some alarm bells by projecting ambivalence on such touchy issues as abortion rights and creationism. He has responded by, among other things, taking on more high-powered and highly paid consultants to help shape his "message."
But much of the Gore message inevitably is that he has been at the right hand of President Clinton. And Mr. Clinton, despite his positive approval ratings for his performance as president, has worn out his welcome with many voters. Clinton fatigue is real and it is a problem for Mr. Gore as well as the president.
Mr. Gore's problem is compounded by the national polls showing him running so far behind the most likely GOP nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Some potential supporters are clearly having second thoughts about making commitments until they are less uneasy about Mr. Gore's potential in the general election.
Mr. Gore isn't barefoot, however, not by any means. He has the support of far more Democratic officeholders and party officials than Mr. Bradley and thus can depend on the lion's share of the convention votes of the so-called "super delegates." In both Iowa and New Hampshire, the scenes for the first tests, Mr. Gore has far more heavyweight support than Mr. Bradley.
Mr. Gore also has a well-established reputation for knowing what he is talking about on the issues. And, more to the point, he already has demonstrated that he can perform effectively in campaign debates. His showing against Ross Perot on trade policy and against Jack Kemp in the 1996 campaign earned him high marks. It is hard to imagine he cannot debate effectively with Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bradley is also a politician with gravitas, of course. At one point, some Gore advisers were peddling the notion that Mr. Bradley was uncertain on the issues. But that line was so ludicrous it died of its own weight.
The bottom line is that once again it is a case of Mr. Bradley marching to his own drummer, following his own timetable, just as he did in his career as a basketball star and a senator from New Jersey. He has decided that the time is finally right to run for president. And nobody in the Democratic Party or the Gore campaign is taking him lightly.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.