Democrats duke it out

Our early primary draws a feisty Bill Bradley to town.

STANDING IN FRONT of a banner at the Westin Hotel that proclaims "Pro Choice, Pro Bradley," his eyebrows arched as high as ever, the Democrats' man of new politics is sounding a lot like a man of old politics. "I am the only candidate running for president that has always been pro-choice," Bill Bradley, on a one-day sweep through Seattle, tells a roomful of journalists and women activists, his voice dripping with as much innuendo as his restrained style allows. His aides clarify with a three-page attack on Al Gore's record on abortion, which recycles the old news that the vice president had previously referred to abortion as "the taking of what is arguably a human life," and reveals that Gore while in Congress had opposed Medicaid funding for abortion.

Who cares? Gore now has the exact same fully pro-choice positions as does Bradley, a fact with which the former senator and basketball star does not quibble. Sinking in the national polls, however, Bradley has come to town to press the abortion theme and he won't let up. "I think [Gore] shows a lack of respect for women by refraining from explaining the evolution of his thinking," Bradley explains.

Even three women in attendance from the Washington state chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League don't seem impressed. "Why does he have to go so negative?" one exclaims, looking over the three-page hit piece. Later in the day, Senator Patty Murray and a host of women activists repudiate Bradley's approach with a press conference defending Gore on the issue. Within days, Bradley's tactic backfires even more badly when national NARAL endorses the vice president with a splashy press conference in DC. "It was probably just to assure the public that this man is completely pro-choice," says Washington NARAL executive director Karen Cooper. With Gore looking more and more like the Democrats' anointed candidate, she adds, NARAL doesn't want him tainted with an anti-choice label as he goes into the general election.

From Bradley's point of view, the timing—in the run-up to primaries in Washington, New York, and elsewhere—couldn't have been worse. The next few weeks are expected to make or break his candidacy. So despite the fact that no Democratic delegates will be chosen in Washington's February 29 primary—all of the D's delegates will be chosen in our March 7 party caucuses—the minority of voters who do participate could send an important message.

The NARAL endorsement notwithstanding, the Democrats' insurgent has a shot at doing well in this state of independents, as does Republican rebel John McCain. "We have a rich history of tweaking establishment candidates," says local Bradley volunteer coordinator Matthew Bergman, a Seattle attorney. In '84, he remembers, Democrats here went for Hart over Mondale; in '92, Tsongas over Clinton.

Bradley has also attracted some powerful donors in these parts, according to FEC filings: Paul Allen, former Microsoft CFO Gregory Maffei, Nintendo chairman Howard Lincoln, and Starbucks chief Howard Schultz, who seems to have persuaded most of his executive staff to chip in as well.

And Bradley has picked up some notable endorsements, including Mayor Paul Schell, Representative Jim McDermott, Seattle City Council President Margaret Pageler, and The Seattle Times. Citing Bradley's "steadfast commitment to racial equality," the Times declared "Bradley for president" in an unusual preprimary editorial in December that picked him as its top guy for the whole race, not just the Democratic contest. McDermott, a lonely voice for radical health care reform in Congress, mentions Bradley's willingness to "stick his neck out" with a plan for universal coverage. (He also notes that he gave Bradley the nod when a faltering Gore campaign looked unable to meet the challenge from Republican George W. Bush, a situation that has changed.)

And as everywhere, Bradley supporters also say they are drawn to him by his integrity and thoughtfulness, his antiestablishment support for campaign finance reform, and his call to use our recent burst of prosperity to help those left behind.

BRADLEY STARTS OFF the morning at the Westin, loping into the room as if a little unsure what to do, then turning suddenly to shake hands in the crowd. He does so with quiet courtesy, the way Fred Astaire might work a room. "Hey, what about us?" a cameraman jokingly yells from the far reaches of the room, and he does a jaunty leap to head back there. Returning to the front, he coolly delivers his abortion-centered attack on Gore and throws out a few local references. "John Stanford is someone I tremendously admired," he says of the late beloved Seattle schools superintendent. "If I was president, I would have named him Secretary of Education."

At noon, Bradley dons a navy windbreaker and loosens up for a rally overlooking the Sound at Victor Steinbrueck Park. He does a throaty whisper as he pretends to be a corrupt Congressman reporting to a corporate boss. "I just got a loophole in the tax code, Mr. Jones. You don't have to pay anything." Raising his voice, he goes on to describe the difference between him and Gore with some of the sharpest language he's used yet on the campaign. "It's a choice between those who believe the Democratic Party is nothing more than a fundraising, political, and job placement bureau, and those who want the Democratic Party once again to raise the great ideals. . . ." More specifically, he mentions their supposed differences on abortion as well as on gun control (Bradley wants to register all handguns, Gore only new ones) and health care (Gore would extend coverage to a smaller group).

The crowd, however, is relatively tame and only a few hundred strong. In contrast, when Bradley goes to the Boeing picket line on his way out of town, striking engineers seem deeply grateful for his appearance. Never mind a bit of pandering as Bradley calls himself the "only candidate in 2000 with a union pension." That's the union of NBA players, not exactly a lunch bucket constituency. But then, as one striker says with a shrug, the striking Society of Professional Engineering and Employees in Aerospace is a white-collar union too. Asked whether they're Bradley supporters, two other guys grin while one replies definitively, "We are now."

How much Bradley's visit will mean at the polls and in caucuses is hard to say. As a whole, labor is lined up behind Gore, at least in terms of organizational endorsements. In fact, Gore has a dauntingly long three-page list of local endorsers, at least triple the number of Bradley's. It's hardly surprising that conventional Democrats like Senator Murray, Governor Gary Locke, and Attorney General Christine Gregoire are backing the vice president. But Gore has also won over a number of outsiders and rebels whom you might expect to gravitate toward Bradley's campaign of insurgency: several Native-American and African-American leaders, populist state Insurance Commissioner and US Senate candidate Deborah Senn, and Northwest AIDS Foundation director Terry Stone.

Senn says she has a personal reason for her preference. Sharing a platform together some years back, Senn told the vice president that her mother had just had a stroke and asked if he would speak to her on Senn's cell phone. He did, and Senn says, "he was so nice to her."

On the other hand, Gore supporter Reverend Sam McKinney, a prominent figure in the African-American community, sounds as if he actually likes Bradley better, calling him "a man of principle." The best McKinney can come up with for the vice president, after much prodding, is that he's a "warm, personable human being who grew up in the Beltway and knows his way around the hustings."

Others mention Gore's support on their issues, whether it be securing AIDS funding or opposing Senator Slade Gorton's stealth attack on tribal sovereignty. But McKinney is plain about the political calculation that he and others are obviously making, given Gore's front-runner status. "The Democrats need to be united as much as possible," he says. Indeed, recent polls in this state show Democrats backing the vice president with a two-to-one lead.

Yet it's the independents that are the real wild card in this state and elsewhere. Here, McCain, not Gore, is the biggest challenge to Bradley. An Elway Poll among Washington voters earlier this month showed McCain ahead in this group with 20 percent, whereas Bush came next with 17 percent and Bradley only third with 16.

McDermott, for one, says he can't understand it. "Their positions are so different," he says, citing McCain's anti-abortion stance. A thankfully received McCain endorsement from ultra-conservative Gary Bauer last week underscores McDermott's point: "All independents—all people—on the outside are not the same." But Bradley has some fast work to do if he's going to convince people of that.

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