COLLEGE PARK -- Bill Bradley brought the presidential race to the University of Maryland, College Park yesterday morning, seeking to sharpen the differences between himself and his rival for the Democratic nomination, Vice President Al Gore.
"If a candidate does not tell the truth as a candidate, how can we trust him to tell the truth as president?" Bradley said, renewing his most persistent attack on Gore to about 500 people in the main ballroom at the student union.
Most of the student-dominated crowd members listening to the half-hour stump speech acted as if they were at a 9 a.m. class taught by a favorite professor -- they appeared interested but not overly enthusiastic.
"I'm a registered Democrat and I'm here trying to find out something about these people I'm supposed to be voting for in a month," said Annie Italiano, a 20-year-old junior from Baltimore who said the March 7 primary will be the first time she casts a vote. She was signing up volunteers for Bradley as a favor to a friend.
Trent Vorlicek, 25, a chemistry graduate student, was carrying a Bradley sign, but was similarly noncommittal.
"I wanted to hear what Bradley had to say," he said. "I'm a Democrat who is trying to decide between Gore and Bradley. When I heard he was going to be here on campus, I didn't think there was any excuse not to come."
The candidate arrived with a raft of local political supporters, from Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings, to former professional basketball colleagues Tom McMillan -- a University of Maryland star who went on to Congress -- and Wes Unseld, now general manager of the Washington Wizards, whose co-owner, Abe Pollin, was also on the crowded stage.
Wizards executive Susan O'Malley told of Unseld's blocking Bradley's last-second shot for the New York Knicks in the seventh game of the semifinals of the NBA playoffs in 1971, sending Unseld's team -- then in Baltimore and called the Bullets -- to the finals.
Roger Wilkins, a George Mason University professor of African-American history, said when he heard Bradley tell that story to a room full of potential donors -- Unseld was the only African-American present -- he knew Bradley had a different approach to race relations.
"What kind of white man tries to impress a bunch of rich white people by telling them that a black man stuffed him?" Wilkins asked in introducing Bradley.
Bradley is no stranger to the College Park campus. In addition to playing basketball at Cole Field House, in 1997 and 1998, after he left the Senate, he was the first Distinguished Leadership Scholar of UMCP's James McGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, where he organized a series of conferences.
"The fundamental challenge for a new president is to find America a new story for a new century," Bradley said at the start of his speech. "Each of us in our own way should be able to find a meaning in life that is deeper than the possession of material things."
Saying he offered an alternative to "the old politics of Al Gore," Bradley noted that voluntarism is at an all-time high among college students but that political participation is low because young people who want to help society do not see politics as a way of doing that.
"When Al Gore was asked about that, he blamed Vietnam and Watergate," Bradley said. "I think those things took place before most of you were born."
Instead, Bradley blamed the way politics has been conducted the past 20 years, noting especially the impact of negative campaigning.
Bradley, who flew in from California, arriving at Baltimore-Washington International Airport at 2 a.m., occasionally showed signs of the fatigue plaguing all the candidates, getting lost in syntax as he struggled to finish a thought. Members of his campaign staff said they did not know if he would be back in the state before the vote March 7.
"Maryland is important to us," said campaign spokesman Eric Hauser. "That's why we're here just three days after New Hampshire. But it is hard for us to plan very far in advance."
Gore made an electronic foray into Maryland yesterday as he allowed reporters to listen in on a phone call to top state officials -- including both U.S. senators, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and three Democratic members of Congress -- most of them his supporters.
The vice president announced that the federal government is committing funds to two transit projects in the state, $10 million for adding a second track to much of Baltimore's light rail line and extending the Washington-area Metro system to Largo in Prince George's County.
"This is a tremendous investment," Gore said. "I'm excited about it."
After thanking Gore, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski urged the vice president to campaign here.
"We need to get you into Maryland, Mr. Vice President," Mikulski said.
In College Park, after Bradley finished his speech, the crowd headed out into a snow squall, joining the thousands of students who seemed oblivious to the candidate in their midst.
"There's not that much interest," Italiano, the junior from Baltimore, said of the presidential race on campus. "I told my roommate I was going to hear Bill Bradley, and she said, 'Oh, that's the guy who invented Monopoly.' "
Sun staff writers Tom Waldron and Gerard Shields contributed to this article.