CRYSTAL CITY, Mo. -- Calling himself a small-town boy who would bring a new brand of leadership to the White House, Bill Bradley returned to his Midwestern roots yesterday to formally launch his campaign for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination.
The 56-year-old former senator, in an unusually personal speech, said he wanted to shake the American people out of their complacency and restore the public's faith in government.
The loudest cheers of the day from the crowd of 1,500 friends and supporters came when Bradley appeared to contrast himself with his party's current president.
"I'm more interested in leadership than polls and politics," he said from the steps of Crystal City High School, where his rise to basketball fame began 40 years ago. "And I believe we need a new kind of leadership, a leadership that puts the people front and center -- not the president. A leadership that understands the people's fears as well as their hopes. A leadership that respects the people as well as challenges them."
Bradley never mentioned President Clinton by name. But polls indicate that public weariness over the scandal-plagued Clinton administration is a significant factor in Bradley's surprising early success in the Democratic nomination contest.
As the lone challenger to Vice President Al Gore, Bradley has pulled into a dead heat for first place in New Hampshire, one of the handful of states where he has concentrated his efforts, according to two recent polls. But Gore continues to lead by wide margins in national surveys, which may mean less at this stage than polls in states where voters are paying close attention to the candidates.
Bradley made no direct reference to Gore, though he did belittle political efforts that do too many "trifling things for some of the people."
The vice president has sometimes been criticized for offering a bewildering array of relatively modest policy proposals, though he recently unveiled an ambitious plan to extend health insurance to every child by 2005.
Bradley, who is appealing to the party's liberal wing in his challenge to Gore, said government should do "large and essential things" for the nation. As an example, he gestured toward the brick high school building behind him, built in 1939 by the federal government under the WPA (Works Projects Administration).
Policy still undefined
He was silent, however, on issues of national defense and foreign policy, saying he would define America's role in the world more clearly if he is elected.
Bradley said he had decided to run for president because "I realized that I had a strong sense of where America is and where we need to go, and I had a passionate conviction that I could help us get there."
He has yet to provide a road map, after more than nine months on the campaign trail, with the exception of a plan for campaign finance reform.
Bradley said he wanted to "put in place long-overdue gun control," reduce child poverty and ease racial prejudice, bring greater prosperity to working families and extend health care to the uninsured. Aides say he will begin to detail his initiatives this fall, starting with a health care speech in Los Angeles this month.
His carefully choreographed return to this former factory town on the banks of the Mississippi River -- three days packed with public events and private media interviews -- was designed to spotlight his early years in a community where he remains a legend.
"I'm a small-town boy," said Bradley, who has been a Rhodes Scholar, a pro basketball star and U.S. senator from New Jersey since leaving Crystal City, 35 miles south of St. Louis, for Princeton in 1961.
He said he was running for president to make the American dream possible for all Americans. "I have confidence in this dream because it's the theme of my life," he said, "because without a famous family name or great wealth, I was given the encouragement and love and the opportunity that enabled me to forge a path of my own."
Yesterday's ceremony generated an outpouring of affection for Bradley among his former neighbors, who decorated the town with hundreds of tiny U.S. flags and hand-painted "Bradley for President" signs and baked more than 5,000 cookies for a community reception that followed his speech.
Bradley ended the day by leading reporters on a walking tour of Crystal City. Among the stops: the two-story brick bank owned by his father; the Presbyterian Church where his mother taught Sunday school; and the site of the former Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory that was once the town's major employer.
The starting point, and highlight, was the comfortable but unpretentious limestone house where his parents lived until their deaths about five years ago.
Bradley, an only child, owns the meticulously kept home, including the metal basketball goal, on a patch of asphalt in the back yard, where he famously honed his shooting skills as a boy.
"I wasn't the most talented player in the world, but I had three strengths," said Bradley, who went on to be a college All-American, Olympic gold medalist and NBA champion with the New York Knicks. "I had a sense for where I was on the court. I had quick, sure hands. And I could out-work anyone."
Bradley is well-known for fiercely guarding his privacy. His 22-year-old daughter, Theresa Anne, whom he has shielded from the public eye, did not attend the ceremony. (Aides said she is out of the country.)
Introduction by wife
But Bradley has offered a qualified peek into his personal life during this campaign. He was introduced yesterday by his wife, Ernestine, a professor of German and comparative literature at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Briefly overcome by emotion, she recalled how, as a girl growing up in post-war Germany, she often gazed at maps of the Mississippi River, which flows along the eastern boundary of Crystal City.
"Never in my life, in my wildest dreams, did I think," she said, "that there would be a day as important as this."
But testimonials from other relatives, former neighbors, friends, teachers and teammates suggested that many in this town of 4,000 thought the presidential announcement was long overdue.
Ed Evans, a former Little League teammate, revealed the secret that 12-year-old Bill confided to him as they walked down brick-paved Mississippi Avenue, an oak-lined street that remains the town's most prestigious address.
"He said, 'One of these days, I'm going to become the president of the United States.' That was at the age of 12," Evans said, adding, "I'm a believer."
After a news conference this morning in the backyard of his boyhood home, Bradley will head to neighboring Iowa, whose caucuses are the first major test of the 2000 campaign.
Pub Date: 9/09/99