WHEN HE played basketball for the New York Knickerbockers, Bill Bradley prevailed with a superior sense of positioning, an attribute memorialized in a book by John McPhee called "A Sense of Where You Are."
By dint of arduous practice and a feel for the flow of a game, Mr. Bradley always knew where he was in relation to the basket, his opponents and the ball. And he had the moves to score or to find an open teammate.
He has shown some of the same skills as a politician, winning election to the United States Senate and, now, commanding big money supporters in his Democratic primary challenge to Vice President Al Gore. By careful accretions of media attention and by relying on a handshake to handshake campaign in key primary states, Mr. Bradley has moved ahead of Mr. Gore in fund raising and in some public opinion polls. He has more money in the bank -- and more momentum.
In remarkably short order, Mr. Gore has lost has position as the presumptive Democratic winner. Even his own camp -- which has recently removed itself from Washington in hopes of rebirth in the clearer air of Tennessee -- doesn't seem as certain as it did a few weeks ago.
To borrow a sports term, Mr. Bradley has taken Mr. Gore "out of his game," made him seem confused and vulnerable.
Abandoning the front-runner's strategy of ignoring the challengers, Mr. Gore now attacks Mr. Bradley for being a bit too nimble, for taking policy positions for political advantage while ignoring his early opposition.
Mr. Gore hopes to reveal his opponent as a man who flip-flops. The label might not matter, though. Mr. Bradley's early success owes a lot to "Clinton fatigue," a weariness with anything that reminds Americans of their president's well-known failures. What else accounts for the vulnerability of Mr. Gore and the apparent strength of the likely Republican nominee, George W. Bush, who has led the Democrat Gore by large margins for most of the last year? Democratic party professionals have been fretting openly for most of that period about having to run with a wounded candidate -- making Bill Bradley worth a second look by definition.
Bill Clinton is only the vice president's most visible problem.
Mr. Gore vaulted to a position a stature he failed to achieve on his own when the president chose him as a running mate. He must now prove his presidential mettle. So far, he has done nothing to silence those who wonder if he has it.
Thus the Democrats seem certain to have a race for their party's nomination -- and it promises to be a very useful one. Both of their candidates are estimable men, men of accomplishment and intellect whose ideas the nation needs.
Mr. Gore wants to further streamline government, to re-invigorate the nation's environmental consciousness and to bring his family values to the White House. Mr. Bradley wants the nation to confront its problems with race, to make health care available to all and to show that he is a go-to guy -- the man who senses a big opportunity.