DES MOINES, Iowa -- Bill Bradley sharply criticized Al Gore in a televised debate last night for failing to push harder to end racial profiling of minorities by law enforcement agencies.
The exchange, one week before the Iowa caucuses, came as the two Democrats tried to outdo each other in appealing for backing from minority voters, including African-Americans, their party's most loyal support group.
Bradley, who is trailing in Iowa and nationally, used the hourlong forum on racial issues to make his boldest charge yet that Gore has not done enough as vice president to promote the changes he says he'd make if elected president.
On his first day as president, Gore said, he would sign an executive order prohibiting racial and ethnic profiling, the use of skin color and other characteristics to single out individuals for questioning by authorities.
"Al, I know that you would issue an order to end racial profiling," Bradley said. "But we have a president now. You serve with him. I want you to walk down that hallway, walk into his office and say, 'Sign this executive order today.' "
A mixture of cheers and boos from the multi-ethnic audience at a Des Moines high school greeted Gore's defense of Clinton and the administration's record.
"I don't think President Bill Clinton needs a lecture from Bill Bradley about how to stand up and fight for African-Americans and Latinos," Gore said. "It's one thing to talk the talk. It's another thing to walk the walk."
Gore claimed that Mayor Sharpe James of Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, had decided to support him instead of Bradley, a former New Jersey senator, because of the administration's record on the racial profiling issue.
James said afterward that Bradley had brushed him off when he tried to talk to the senator about police discrimination against minorities in New Jersey.
Bradley "told me, 'It's a local problem. It'll take care of itself,' " James said.
Eric Hauser, a Bradley spokesman, disputed James' statement, though he acknowledged that he did not know whether Bradley even had had such a discussion with the Newark mayor.
"Sharpe James' motivation here is purely political," the Bradley aide said.
The latest Gore-Bradley exchange underscored the potential problems that Gore may encounter as he tries to make the case for change after seven years of the Clinton-Gore administration.
Last night's debate followed earlier efforts by Bradley to attack Gore over the administration's failure to do more to reform health care and the campaign finance system, provide more money for anti-poverty programs and allow gays to serve openly in the military.
The sixth Gore-Bradley debate was the first to deal with a single issue: race in America.
Iowa's tiny minority population is unlikely to be a significant factor in Monday's caucuses (the state is 96 percent white). But last night's encounter, carried nationally on cable television, was aimed at a wider audience: the African-American and Hispanic voters who will wield considerable influence in later primary states and in the general election.
Few differences separate the two Democrats on issues such as affirmative action (both support it), flying a Confederate flag over government buildings (both would end it) or the recent racist comments by Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker (both say he should be disciplined by the team).
Both also want Congress to pass a law prohibiting racial profiling by state and local law enforcement agencies and would sign an executive order to bar it at the federal level.
Attorney General Janet Reno is working on language of a proposed order, which would likely affect the FBI and other federal agencies, including customs and immigration.
The debate was organized by the Iowa Black-Brown Forum and moderated by BET's Tavis Smiley and NBC's Soledad O'Brien. It was timed to coincide with the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Earlier, Gore spoke at the annual memorial service at the Atlanta church where the civil rights leader preached. Gore took the opportunity to announce an administration initiative: a $1.5 million administration budget request to restore King's birthplace.
Bradley attended a King holiday ceremony in Des Moines, then answered questions on racial issues from local students. The former basketball star was accompanied throughout the day by another Hall of Famer, retired Boston Celtic Bill Russell.
Gore leads Bradley by a large margin nationally and here in Iowa, according to voter surveys. However, in New Hampshire, the first primary state, the race is much tighter.
Two polls late last week in New Hampshire produced opposite results. A Newsweek survey showed Gore overtaking Bradley, while Bradley led in the other, conducted by Dartmouth College and the Associated Press.