How do you beat a sitting vice president in a presidential nomination contest? There’s no established game plan, because no one’s ever done it. It’s the sort of history Bill Bradley is aiming to make by challenging Al Gore. As his campaign has received positive reviews–mostly because of his fundraising prowess–Bradley has been pressing his case with his personal tale: Small-town Missouri boy becomes basketball hero becomes cerebral senator. (Gore has “been in federal government all his life,” Bradley jeers.) Bradley’s policy thrusts have been few; he promises more come fall. He has twice tried to strike in bold fashion. In June he proposed an antigun package that included measures surpassing those discussed in Congress, such as registration of all handguns. In July he delivered an impassioned speech at the National Press Club decrying big money in politics. But boasting tougher positions than Gore on lobbyists, guns and money won’t be enough to wrest the Democratic Party from Gore. How’s he going to win over traditional Democratic voters–unionists, African-Americans, enviros, pro-choice advocates, Clinton loyalists?
There are few, if any, major Democratic constituencies where Bradley starts with an advantage. Among African-Americans–20 to 25 percent of the Democratic primary electorate–Gore is quite popular, according to polls. In a recent survey conducted by David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 69 percent of black respondents held a favorable impression of the Vice President; only 17 percent held an unfavorable one. Bradley registered favorably with 41 percent and unfavorably with 11 percent. “Bradley has no better record from the point of view of the black community than Gore does,” Bositis observes, “and due to his association with Bill Clinton, Gore is seen as having a better policy.” Bradley’s speeches declaring race the paramount issue in America do not resonate, Bositis says. “Bradley has done nothing except talk. And what is he best known for in his years in the Senate? The 1986 tax reform. I liked [Reagan Treasury Secretary turned Chief of Staff] Don Regan’s plan better than Bradley’s. Neither was populist, but Bradley’s made Regan’s plan worse from an income-distribution point of view.”
Sentiment in the Congressional Black Caucus is with Gore, according to caucus members’ aides. “I’ve talked to people within the caucus about Bradley’s race speech,” says one, “and no one thinks much of it.” Jesse Jackson, who has made no endorsement, is widely judged by Jackson-watchers to be leaning toward Gore.
Bradley is having difficulty vying with Gore for institutional labor support. During the years they overlapped in the Senate, Gore rated slightly higher on the AFL-CIO’s scorecard (88 to 84 percent). Both support free trade in a manner that irritates unions. “When Bradley was in the Senate, he was Mr. Free Trade, and the industrial unions hated him,” says a labor lawyer who witnessed clashes between Bradley and union officials. “There’s not enough of a difference between Gore and Bradley for labor leaders to turn against Gore. Many of them think they already have a relationship with Gore.”
In February Bradley spoke before leaders of the AFL-CIO. “He missed an opportunity,” says Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. “He did not make a clear and convincing case for what he believed in, what he would do if he were President and how he could win.” In May Bradley addressed an SEIU gathering and left a better impression. He emphasized that he’d been a union rep when he played basketball, and he discussed issues important to labor. “He made our members realize there was going to be a competitive primary,” Stern notes. Yet Gore, according to Stern, talked more than Bradley about policy and issues of interest to the union members. “It’s enormously hard to imagine at the [union] leadership level a Bradley endorsement,” Stern adds. “The interesting question is whether Bradley will connect with union members. Will his proposals in the fall seem significantly different from Gore’s?”