WASHINGTON -- Bill Bradley intends to "be myself" and "try to be positive" in his first face-to-face encounter with Al Gore. The vice president, meantime, says he's disappointed because tonight's nationally televised event is really "not a debate" at all.
So it goes as the rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination warily circle each other -- and try to manage expectations -- in advance of their first joint appearance of the 2000 campaign.
From 8 to 9 o'clock, the two will share a stage in what is being billed as a New Hampshire town meeting. Underscoring its potential importance, the candidates have spent much of the past week in debate preparations, with Gore holed up at a New Hampshire hotel and Bradley at home in New Jersey.
Ordinary voters will ask the candidates questions that have been screened in advance by CNN and a New Hampshire TV station, the debate sponsors. There will be limited opportunity for direct confrontation between Gore and Bradley, but plenty of chances for them to say what they stand for, according to the sponsors.
Gore wants debates
"It's not a debate," Gore said in an interview late last week. The vice president has issued a challenge for weekly debates -- which Bradley has turned down -- as part of a larger effort to energize his campaign and connect emotionally with voters.
"Bradley won't accept a debate until the Friday night before Christmas from 11: 30 p.m. to 1 a.m., when nobody's watching," Gore said. "No, this is a joint town hall meeting, where the candidates are not allowed to engage each other."
Bradley's team sees it differently. "The format is a good one, because it's going to allow voters to ask questions about what's important to them," said Bradley spokesman Tony Wyche.
Tom Hannon, CNN's political director, said the event was designed to be more informal than a traditional debate, with less cross-talk between the candidates and more direct questioning by the voters.
The hourlong program, which CNN will carry live from Dartmouth College, is the first of at least a half-dozen encounters between Bradley and Gore. The next is scheduled for Dec. 17, when the two will appear on ABC's "Nightline."
Bradley leading in N.H.
Gore has turned sharply aggressive in recent weeks, after polls showed Bradley overtaking him in New Hampshire, the first primary state. The vice president is portraying his rival as a big-spender who would exhaust the budget surplus with his health care proposal, leaving nothing for other priorities, such as fixing Medicare.
Bradley, in keeping with his aversion to negative politics, has largely ignored the attacks. But heading into tonight's forum, the former pro basketball star warned that "you only take elbows so long, and then you've got to return it."
"Will we see Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa or Mike Tyson against Evander Holyfield?" asked Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster.
"Both of them have an opportunity to shine. For Bill Bradley, it's a chance to get his message across to people who don't know him very well. Al Gore is building up a new head of steam and defining a new direction for his campaign, and the question is, is that going to come across?"
Regardless of Gore's complaints, the format should favor the vice president, who excels in debate, added Hart.
"There's some real drama here," said Paul Maslin, a California pollster and former Gore adviser. "Can either of them make a connection with real voters? Does Bradley strike back at Gore? Or will Bradley come off as too diffident?"
On opposite World Series
The event is expected to attract a relatively small viewing audience, since it is being carried nationwide only on cable TV, opposite the fourth game of the World Series. In New Hampshire, however, it will be broadcast on the state's most-watched station, WMUR, a co-sponsor of tonight's forum and a similar one tomorrow night featuring all the Republican candidates except Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Typically, news coverage of a debate has more political impact than the event itself, which is one reason why the candidates will be striving for a memorable sound bite or "gotcha" moment. And with no other Democratic debates scheduled until late December, "this is going to be all we feed on for about six weeks. Whatever impression gets left tonight will last for awhile," Maslin said.
Nationally, Gore leads Bradley by 25 percentage points in the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today survey. But it's a different story in the early states of New Hampshire and Iowa, where the two candidates are spending much of their time and voters are paying closer attention.
Bradley leads Gore by from 3 to 12 percentage points in four recent New Hampshire polls. He's also gaining ground in Iowa, though Gore still holds the edge there.