WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley appeared together for the first time in Campaign 2000 yesterday, with Bradley seeking to assure the Democratic National Committee that he did not intend to tear the party apart, while Gore tried to reassure his nervous supporters that he could be elected president.
They both appeared to succeed.
Hundreds of Democratic Party leaders and activists gathered in Washington last week, clearly worried about Texas Gov. George W. Bush's double-digit leads in the polls and anxiously eyeing the surge of support for Bradley, a former New Jersey senator.
Most of the party's leaders have lined up behind Gore, but the vice president's campaign has been perceived as in disarray while the candidate has had difficulty arousing support, especially in the key state of New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held in February.
"It's normal human behavior," said Bob Mulholland, a DNC member from California and a Gore supporter. "If you're not up 15 points in the polls, you worry."
With that backdrop, Gore entered a packed ballroom at the Washington Hilton just past noon with rock music blaring and a raucous partisan crowd cheering. He delivered what his aides predictably called the speech of his life, stepping out from behind the lectern, looking relaxed, forgoing the growl he has employed in the past, and shedding, at least for that moment, the wooden persona with which he has been tarred.
"From this summit of America's unprecedented prosperity, we still cannot see every opportunity that lies ahead, or every challenge that we must be prepared to confront, but we can see that by working together and joining our hearts and our hands, we can win this election and make this country the way it's supposed to be in the 21st century," he told the crowd.
But if Gore bucked up the faithful, Bradley succeeded in presenting himself as a credible alternative that would not be so divisive during the primaries that he would scar the party during the general election.
Bradley took no shots at Gore, saving his ammunition for Bush, the Republican front-runner. And he consciously extended an olive branch to party leaders unabashedly aligned with Gore.
"[House Democratic leader] Dick Gephardt may not be for me, but I sure want him to be speaker of the House," he told an appreciative, though less enthusiastic crowd. "[Senate Democratic leader] Tom Daschle may not be for me, but I sure want him to be Senate majority leader."
Maria Smithson, vice chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Oregon, said she was relieved by both performances.
"I am very much undecided," she said, smiling. "I respect both of these men so much, I wish they could both be our party's candidate."
Bradley campaign manager Gina Glantz conceded that Gore was playing with home field advantage. The DNC's leadership, including its newly elected general chairman, Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, were hand-picked by President Clinton and Gore. Clinton has remade the party since his election in 1992, and the party remains loyal to him and his chosen successor.
That advantage translates into raw numbers. Of the 4,335 delegates who will select the party's nominee, 798 -- or nearly 20 percent -- are so-called superdelegates, not subject to the will of the voters. They include 428 DNC members, the 17 Democratic governors, the 210 Democratic House members and 45 senators, and a handful of other party leaders, all of whom are free to choose which candidate they like.
Of those 798, well over 400 have publicly endorsed Gore. Five have endorsed Bradley. Superdelegates swung the nomination for former Vice President Walter F. Mondale in 1984 against upstart former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, and that institutional muscle was again in evidence yesterday.
Bradley entered the ballroom to the wild cheers of his followers in the back but only polite applause from the delegates in front. He did not have Gore's thumping soundtrack to pump up the crowd.
Gore had been scheduled to speak first but, at the last minute, switched so that he could leave the last impression.
"The vice president has the institutional advantage here, no doubt about that," Glantz said.
But that advantage can change quickly. If Gore's delegates sense they are backing the wrong horse, they can change their bets before the Democrats' nominating convention in Los Angeles next August.
"A lot will happen between now and the convention that will affect the minds of the superdelegates," warned former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, the outgoing DNC chairman.
Polls that have consistently shown Gore trailing Bush by 15 percentage points have rattled party activists, especially when recent polls have shown Bradley trailing the GOP front-runner by as little as 9 points. Moreover, though Gore leads Bradley by a wide margin among Democrats nationally, Bradley has pulled even with or passed the vice president in New Hampshire and New York.
A nervous President Clinton gave four speeches Friday to reassure Democratic activists and donors that Gore could win, while he pleaded for campaign cash.
"You should be in good cheer. You should be optimistic. You should be confident," Clinton told 70 Democratic donors late Friday night at a $1 million DNC fund-raiser. "The same pundits who want you to think it's over are the ones who buried me nine or 10 times."
Yesterday, it was up to Gore to take center stage and live up to Clinton's reassurances.
He did so, activists said, with a speech that touched Democratic hot buttons such as abortion rights, Social Security, and Medicare, while appealing to the party's core constituents: women, African Americans, gay rights advocates, the handicapped and organized labor.
He took one oblique shot at Bradley, saying, "I want you to know I have never been for vouchers," a reference to Bradley's past Senate votes in favor of voucher demonstration programs for public school children seeking help with private school tuition. Such programs are vehemently opposed by the teachers unions that are powerful forces in Democratic politics.
He took a direct shot at Bush for the Texas governor's anti-gun control stance and Bush's statement that a "wave of evil" was responsible for this month's mass shooting in a Forth Worth church.
"Why don't you join us to take the weapons of evil out of the hands of evildoers?" Gore rhetorically asked Bush to loud applause.
DNC members were pleased, they said after the speech.
"He did just what he needed to do," said Iola McGowan, the Illinois Democratic Party's first vice chairman, "look energized, organized, optimistic and confident about winning."
But Bradley's supporters were just as buoyed by their candidate's understated speech that preached gun control, economic well-being for those left behind by today's prosperity, an expansion of health care insurance, and campaign finance reform.
Bradley took no shots at Gore, though he seemed to give the Clinton-Gore administration only grudging credit for the nation's strong economy.
He did take Bush to task for opposing a hate-crimes bill that failed to pass the Texas Legislature after the dragging death of James Byrd.
Above all, Bradley preached unity and civility.
"What better way to energize voters than a contest that brings two people together for a spirited debate of ideas, a real contest with real choices," he told the delegates, imploring them to leave "the decision where it should be, and that is with the people."
The reception was what Bradley supporters said they hoped for, friendly and respectful.
"We're among friends," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, a longtime friend of the Clinton-Gore administration. "We're all Democrats."