HANOVER, N.H -- Sticking firmly to the high road, former Sen. Bill Bradley shrugged off repeated jabs from Vice President Al Gore last night in their first joint appearance of the Democratic presidential campaign.
Neither candidate managed to get off a memorable line or land a damaging blow. But the two rivals also committed no blunders as they fielded questions from a serious-minded audience of New Hampshire voters for more than an hour.
Bradley seemed to get a slightly warmer reception with his responses, which even Gore praised, at one point, for their eloquence.
Gore seemed determined to showcase his newfound eagerness to reach out to ordinary voters in New Hampshire in the wake of polls showing Bradley pulling ahead in the leadoff primary state.
The vice president took the initiative in inviting audience questions for 15 minutes before the televised "town meeting" went on the air. Then he stayed for more than 90 minutes after the show ended, sitting casually on the edge of the stage with his wife, Tipper, responding to additional queries.
Last night's encounter on the Dartmouth College campus, aired nationally on CNN, gave viewers a chance to compare the candidates side-by-side for the first time. What they saw were two centrist Democrats who differ more in personality and style than on the issues.
Bradley, in standard-issue blue business attire -- Gore chose a more modish earth-toned suit and black-leather cowboy boots -- appeared relaxed in his first debate-style appearance since 1990. The former pro basketball star stuck rigidly to his game plan: to remain positive in the face of whatever Gore threw his way.
Bradley refused to turn critical when an audience member asked him to comment on campaign financing irregularities in the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. As the audience tittered, Bradley paused, a smile on his face and a glint in his eye. Then he tilted his head, looked meaningfully at Gore and declined to attack.
"I think there were obviously some irregularities," he said. But he added, "I'm not going to get into the details at this stage of the game."
Gore gently but persistently chided his rival over the cost of Bradley's sweeping health care plan, his past support for private school vouchers, his refusal to make his income-tax returns public and his failure to support the administration's actions in East Timor. Only on the health-care issue did Bradley respond, rejecting Gore's claim that the Bradley plan would exhaust the federal budget surplus over the next 10 years.
"I dispute the cost figure that Al used," said Bradley, describing his response as a "clarification." That was as confrontational as he got.
Gore appeared eager to address doubts about his candidacy, answering a question that wasn't asked to express the "disappointment and anger" he had felt over President Clinton's personal behavior while in office.
But "he's my friend," Gore said, adding that he had taken an oath to "serve my country through thick and thin."
In recent campaign appearances, Gore has tried to shed the trappings of the vice presidency in an effort to connect with voters. But his campaign rolled out the heavy artillery last night, bringing at least three Cabinet members into the press room after the event as part of its effort to impart a pro-Gore spin to the news coverage.
Bradley's campaign, perhaps making a virtue of the fact that it has far fewer endorsements, made no such effort. The Bradley campaign manager, Gina Glantz, stood largely anonymously amid the swarm of reporters, chuckling over the extent of the Gore effort.
"We're about Bill Bradley; he speaks for himself," said Glantz, who said the former senator last night "was the presidential candidate that he has been since the campaign began."
At least one independent analyst suggested Bradley got the better of the first of what is expected to be a series of at least a half-dozen head-to-head encounters over the next few months.
"Bradley has the Clinton empathy, in a curiously low-key way," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a nonpartisan political newsletter.
"I thought that Gore tried so hard to connect that it was pretty obvious that that was what he was doing," Rothenberg said. "I thought, overall, that Bradley's kind of nonpolitical approach just seemed more genuine."
The candidates broke no fresh ground on issues. But on a personal note, Gore said he regretted his remarks earlier this year in which he appeared to claim authorship of the Internet, calling that "his biggest mistake."
"I'm proud of what I did in that area," said Gore, who helped popularize what he liked to call the information superhighway. "I'm not proud of what I did to try to take too much credit for it."
Bradley said he could not have run for president had he not retired from the Senate in 1996 and taken two years off to talk with people about their lives.
"If you're going to run for president," Bradley said, "you ought to deal with the big problems, and you ought to have big solutions to the big problems."
On gay rights, on which the two men largely agree, the shadings of their answers are likely to be examined closely by gay and lesbian voters.
Bradley, saying "social justice is long overdue" for homosexuals, repeated his position in favor of allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces. He also called for the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Gore, though he praised Bradley's answer as "very eloquent," said he would not add gay rights to the 1964 law. Gore also said he does not favor legalizing gay marriage. Though he supports giving to a gay partnership the same benefits accorded a union between a husband and wife, he said he would not describe such a relationship as a marriage.