Pol Reversal: Gore Goes Gunning for Bradley

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Now that Al Gore is the "underdog," mired in the familiarity and fatigue of the Clinton presidency, the veep wants to engage Bill Bradley in hand-to-hand combat. The Gore camp got on the phone to the newspapers Thursday, telling the Washington Post that Bradley’s days as an "outsider" are numbered, promising to dredge up every compromise and change of heart in the former senator’s 18-year record. (They’re likely to start with Bradley’s recent Iowa flip-flop on ethanol subsidies, which he once called "highway robbery.") Then there’s the debates –- or at least the debates Gore has begun pushing Bradley for –- which will for now consist of a near-debate "joint appearance" at an October 27 town hall meeting in New Hampshire, the only confrontation Bradley has agreed to. A whole new Gore 2000? As Bradley himself said Wednesday in California with typical wryness, "That's an abrupt strategy shift. This time yesterday they were ignoring me."

This time yesterday Bradley wasn’t leading in New Hampshire, dead even in New York, and tallying up as the candidate with the bigger coffers. Besides moving his HQ to Nashville, Gore has started talking about his post-Vietnam "disillusionment" with government, and using flowery Bradley-style imagery to illustrate his themes. Once, Bradley was a quixotic outsider to be ignored; now he’s the man to beat. "For a long time this campaign rightfully –- and then wrongfully –- thought the right strategy was to engage Bush," one Gore aide told the New York Times. "Now we have to acknowledge reality." The question is, will Bradley play along? Gore is a proven debater, having aced his stare-downs with Ross Perot and Jack Kemp, and a toe-to-toe could be his best chance to retake the momentum. Bradley, meanwhile, has campaigned as the lanky, unconventional, enigmatic outsider, and he’s in no hurry to lift the veil of mystery that has just started to work in his favor. Gore says he’s the underdog, and Dollar Bill the target? That’s fine with Bradley, who now can start acting like another favorite, George W. Bush –- and decline to debate his puny rivals until January.