WASHINGTON -- In a gambit critics dismissed as political theater, Vice President Al Gore abruptly left the post-New Hampshire campaign trail and returned to Washington yesterday for a possible tie-breaking Senate vote on an abortion amendment.
But Senate Republicans quickly made sure Gore's vote would not be needed, blocking him from the publicity windfall his campaign would love to have on an issue that has troubled the vice president in recent days.
Meantime, former Sen. Bill Bradley turned up the heat on Gore in the Democratic presidential contest over the vice president's controversial fund-raising role in the 1996 campaign.
Bradley, who lost Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire despite a strong finishing kick, said for the first time that Gore needs to tell the country more about his role in the Clinton-Gore fund-raising effort.
"The scandals of 1996 still hang over his head, and he's got to make further explanations," said Bradley.
Bradley contends that he would be a more electable nominee than Gore because Republicans will make the Clinton-Gore fund-raising controversy an issue in the fall campaign.
But until yesterday, he had refused to directly criticize Gore's role, which included his participation in a fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple in California and fund-raising calls from the White House.
Bradley also said he has no intention of abandoning his attacks on Gore, which brought him to within five points of the vice president in the New Hampshire vote.
Exit polls indicated that Bradley had gained support with his attack on Gore's abortion record. Bradley says the vice president needs to explain why he switched sides on the issue in the 1980s, and a Bradley TV ad implied that Gore is still straddling the question.
It was against that backdrop that Gore's campaign announced yesterday that Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a Gore supporter, had urgently requested the vice president's help in breaking a possible tie vote on an abortion amendment in the Senate.
The quick change of plans highlighted Gore's ability to use his office to gain free publicity for his views. His supporters eagerly used yesterday's episode to promote the vice president's position in favor of abortion rights.
"If you have any doubts about Al Gore's commitment to women, to their families, to their health, to their right to choose, today ought to prove it," Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said at a Democratic rally featuring Gore.
But Republicans denied Gore the chance to break a tie -- and thus maximize the impact of his backing for a provision that would prevent protesters who are convicted of criminal acts against abortion clinics from declaring bankruptcy to avoid fines and court judgments.
The provision was inspired by recent court cases involving anti-abortion groups that stage clinic protests.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who had denounced the provision, suddenly switched tactics and urged colleagues to vote for it.
Hatch explained to the Senate that he wanted to ensure that "no one will be able to politically demagogue" the vote. The provision passed 80-17.
By that time, Gore had already tried to make his point, describing at the rally how he had been summoned from Grand Central Station, where he was shaking hands with commuters.
Daschle and two other Democratic senators "called to say this looks like it could very well be 50-50," Gore said.
"When they formally requested that I come back to be available, of course my standing order of procedure is to respond to the senators," he said. "Especially on a vote like this, there's just no question about it."
Gore acknowledged that breaking Senate ties is his job -- one of the few assigned duties of his office. That didn't stop supporters from hailing his effort, which gained as much or more publicity than the campaigning he had planned in New York.
"We are proud of you, Al Gore," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and sponsor of the provision. "Not only proud of your record, but proud that you were able to be here with us despite all the other things you have to do."
The trip was so hastily arranged, the vice president had to take a commercial flight -- the 9 a.m. US Airways New York-Washington shuttle -- because Air Force Two wasn't ready. Gore, who had only two hours of sleep, spent much of the flight dozing.
As a Tennessee congressman in the 1980s, Gore opposed federal funding of Medicaid abortions and cast other votes with anti-abortion forces. By the time of his 1988 presidential campaign, he had adopted a position in line with those who favor abortion rights.
"Those [early] votes were anti- choice," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights League, who attended the Gore rally. "But that was more than a decade ago. What's important is where he is now."
It's hard to say how close yesterday's vote might have been without Gore. Some senators suggested, though, that Democrats overreacted in summoning him.
"It's not that hard to get Hatch to fold," said Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter. "You don't have to bring in Al Gore."