DES MOINES, Iowa -- Like the race of the tortoise and the hare, the contest for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination started earlier this year with the heavy favorite, Vice President Al Gore, bursting from the starting line while the long shot, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, was taking his own sweet time.
It has been that way ever since, but Saturday night at the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner here, the hare dramatically displayed his impatience with the pace -- especially because the methodical tortoise seems somehow to be gaining on him.
Bradley had just finished saying that the trouble with politics these days was that "instead of defining yourself positively, you define the negatives about the other person." That sounded like a veiled reference to criticisms Gore had leveled at him earlier in the day for, among other things, retiring from the Senate while the Republicans were in control.
Bradley called on Gore to join him in elevating the tone of the campaign with a competition of positive ideas that he compared to the good-natured home-run hitting contest between baseball sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Gore, expressing agreement, intoned that "the best way to do that is to have debates every week." Stepping out from behind the dais, his eyes searching into the audience where Bradley sat, the vice president suggested one on agriculture right away and shouted: "What about it, Bill? If the answer is yes, stand up!" Bradley smiled, and remained seated.
Gore began calling for a series of debates more than a week earlier, when he announced he was moving his campaign headquarters to Nashville, Tenn., and declared himself the new "underdog," despite his continued lead in most polls.
Invoking the McGwire-Sosa competition himself, Gore observed, "If they just stayed in the dugout and talked to their own team, they wouldn't hit many home runs."
The vice president said he hoped Bradley would reconsider the debate-a-week challenge.
Then, having said he welcomed the idea of a positive campaign, Gore proceeded by implication to hammer again at Bradley's decision to retire from the Senate in 1996, when the Republicans controlled Congress, and to vote for Reagan budget cuts while he was in the Senate.
"In 1981, when the Reagan budget cuts in education, housing and health care threatened decency and social justice," Gore charged, "even some Democrats said, 'We had to support them to survive politically.' But I didn't walk away. I decided to stay and fight!"
He went on, voice rising: "When [then-House Speaker] Newt Gingrich took over Congress and tried to reinforce Reaganomics to try to force deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, I didn't walk away. I decided to stay and fight!"
Ticking off challenges the Democrats faced in Congress after Bradley left, the vice president played cheerleader with the overflow dinner crowd, clearly pro-Gore, encouraging them to chant along each time he said he "stayed to fight!"
All in all, it was a bravado performance that demonstrated as well as anything the Democratic presidential race: Gore the energetic rabbit with speed to burn thundering down the path; Bradley the plodding, soft-stepping turtle maintaining his steady pace, oblivious to his opponent's prodding to engage him in a livelier footrace.
Detours for Gore
The tortoise-and-hare analogy is not a precise one. Gore did not stop running somewhere along the route and take a long nap under a shady tree, permitting Bradley to start closing the gap between them. He has been going full-bore all year, but he has encountered a number of detours and roadblocks.
His fund-raising excesses in the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign have haunted his 2000 presidential bid. Unfavorable polls against Republican front-runner Gov. George W. Bush of Texas have raised fears, most recently voiced by Bradley backer Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, that Gore "can't be elected."
Disarray in his campaign staff and his headquarters' recent relocation to Nashville have added to the picture of a candidacy in distress.
Bradley has campaigned unhurriedly here and across the country, as he likes to say "listening" to voters as much as talking to them. Both in living rooms and on the stump, his presentations stylistically are more conversations than political pitches, his voice low and evenly modulated, his remarks devoid of intentional applause lines -- or, notably, much humor.
When Bradley tells a joke, you often have to think twice about the punch line -- not what the joke is, but whether it's really funny. Example: A candidate has to be careful whom he takes advice from. A fellow told him, "There are three kinds of people in the world -- those who can count and those who can't."
Gore, on the other hand, increasingly takes on the demeanor of the roving television performer, microphone in hand, pointedly combating his reputation as wooden, dishing out applause lines and getting the sought-after response.
When Gore tells a joke, although he deadpans it expertly for effect, the point is immediately grasped by the laughing audience. Example: Three men -- a doctor, a lawyer and a health maintenance organization operator -- die and approach the heavenly gates. St. Peter asks each what he was in life and quickly and approvingly admits the doctor and the lawyer. Then, after thinking, he lets the HMO operator enter too, but tells him: "Only for three days."
Similar on issues
Yet, with their clear stylistic difference, the candidates' basic messages are quite similar. Each preaches the essential goodness of the American people and of the free society in which they live, and each calls on the better angels of their nature to rekindle American greatness.
They differ only in degree in their advocacy of stricter gun control, campaign finance reform and expansion of health care insurance to the uninsured, especially children.
Bradley has taken pains to stake out positions somewhat more liberal than Gore on all these issues as he strives for more support from the left, even as Gore clings to the party middle strengthened by his mentor, President Clinton. The vice president seeks to cement party organizational strength, which has given him an early edge in Iowa. Bradley is obliged to reach out for individual Democratic voters in a state whose process favors organizational politics.
Drawbacks as vice president
The precinct caucuses in which the two men will compete in January require voters to show up in living rooms, church basements and the like and cast their preferences in public. "You can't go into a polling booth and do it privately," notes Rob Tully, the state Democratic chairman who is remaining neutral. "A lot of lobbying goes on before and during a caucus." If a voter is a union member and his local leader is there, he says, it's harder to vote against the union endorsement, many of which are going to Gore.
If Gore as vice president has advantages in being the establishment candidate, there also are drawbacks. His heavy Secret Service protection makes it harder for him to reach voters up close. However, according to Steve Hildebrand, his Iowa campaign manager, an arrangement has been worked out with the Secret Service that enables Gore to handshake his way freely table-to-table, by holding invitation-only events and providing agents with lists of attendees beforehand.
In Bradley's standard talk, he makes a point of saying he is "trying it in a different way," by accentuating his positives and eliminating the negatives about others.
When Gore assails him as he did here the other night, the question is whether he scores points, unmasking Bradley as more of a politician than he admits, or is playing into the hand of this self-proclaimed high-road candidate.
The answer to that key question will be determined between now and the Iowa caucuses in January and the primaries to follow.