DES MOINES -- For the first time since Vice President Al Gore started pressing former Sen. Bill Bradley to engage in a series of debates, the two Democrats will share the same platform here tomorrow night at the Iowa party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner. But it won't be exactly what Mr. Gore is looking for in his new self-styled "underdog" strategy to take on the upstart challenger.
The format will not be a debate, but rather a couple of speeches, with Mr. Bradley going first. That arrangement will give the vice president the opportunity to criticize what the old basketball player has to say. But it won't be the sort of direct confrontation that Mr. Gore is seeking to cut the long shot of just a few weeks ago down to size.
Part of the catalyst for the Gore campaign's shake-up -- which includes moving campaign headquarters to Nashville, Tenn. -- has been Mr. Bradley's steady gains in polls in such key primary states as New Hampshire and New York.
Mr. Gore's strategists, recalling his strong past debate performances against Dan Quayle, Ross Perot and Jack Kemp, are confident that in head-to-head confrontations with the rather benign Mr. Bradley, their man will easily carry the day.
Political cold shoulder
But Mr. Bradley isn't biting. Aside from a debate in New Hampshire to which he had already agreed before the recent Gore challenge, he has brushed aside the debate demand so far.
In his Iowa headquarters here, his state campaign manager, Dan Lucas, has posted a motto: "You fight your war; I'll fight mine."
Even without a direct debate, however, the dinner putting Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley on the same platform has generated considerable interest.
If nothing else, they want to see how each man handles the situation in which a suddenly fired-up Mr. Gore seems to be aching for a fight and an unrattled Mr. Bradley won't rise to the bait, except to say that Mr. Gore's positions on gun control, campaign finance reform and health care are "timid" compared with his own.
Unlike the Iowa Republicans, who conducted an extremely hyped-up straw vote at their own presidential candidate forum in August, the state's Democrats have abandoned such polling.
It was at the 1975 Iowa Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson dinner that then-relatively unknown Jimmy Carter injected himself into the thick of the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination by leading the pack of contenders in a straw vote. He then went on to finish first in the precinct caucuses.
The Georgian's coup inevitably gave rise to copycats in both parties in the Iowa run-ups to succeeding presidential elections, with White House aspirants trekking to the state months before the Iowa caucuses.
In 1992, because Iowan Tom Harkin was himself a presidential candidate, other contenders, including Bill Clinton, didn't really contest the Democratic caucuses and there was no point in conducting a Democratic straw poll, and in 1996 President Clinton had no opposition for renomination.
As a notable sidelight to this year's dinner, in 1988 in his first presidential bid, Mr. Gore used the forum to say some harsh words about the Iowa caucuses he now hopes to win. Recognizing the strength here of other Democratic candidates that year, especially Rep. Dick Gephardt of neighboring Missouri, Mr. Gore conspicuously denigrated the caucus process and ran poorly on caucus night.
But this year Mr. Gore is singing a different tune about the Iowa caucuses, because they loom as particularly important to him this time around.
Countering the unsettling poll findings for Mr. Gore in New Hampshire and New York, the most recent Mason-Dixon poll here has Mr. Gore still ahead of Mr. Bradley.
He could ill afford serious slippage here in what will be the first expression of Democratic voter preference in 2000. The Iowa caucuses are to be held Jan. 31, the earliest in history, and could even be pushed a week earlier if New Hampshire holds to its present plan to conduct its kickoff primary on Feb. 1.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 10/08/99