With an Eye on the Center, Gore Outflanks Bradley

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After staggering Bill Bradley with a surprise jab in the form of a twice-weekly-debate challenge, Vice President Gore sought to finish off the ex-senator Wednesday with one of Dollar Bill's own weapons — Great Society revivalism. Borrowing language from LBJ, the veep unveiled a 10-year, $50 billion plan to make preschool universally accessible to four-year-olds and most three-year-olds. The proposal hit Bradley, the de facto liberal of the Democratic race, where it hurts by surpassing his $2.5 billion-per-year child-poverty program. "This answers Bradley's big criticism of Gore, that he's not bold enough," says TIME Washington correspondent John F. Dickerson. Bradley's proposal, which covers a wide range of services, including child and health care, has been criticized for its vagueness as to how exactly the money would be divided. Now Gore has trumped him both in scale and in detail.

Possibly more important than its appeal to liberals is the proposal's potential to shore up the veep's grip on the middle, which he could eventually wrangle over with George W. Bush. The Democratic primary debates promise to pit Bradley's $90 billion health care proposal against Gore's preschool plan. "Preschool is a fuzzier, more embraceable issue than health care for the poor," notes Dickerson. "America's just starting to realize that it trails the rest of the world in preschool; meanwhile, big health care plans are a tough sell, even among Democrats."

For proof of preschool's greater appeal, consider that while Bill Clinton's most famous domestic policy gaffe is his botched stab at health care reform, his tenfold expansion of Head Start's budget has been virtually unopposed. That's political currency for Gore, who's made an art form of denouncing the President's failures and taking credit for his successes. For Bradley, who's been playing catch-up since the campaign season began, Gore's proposal just widens the gap. Where's Willis Reed when he needs him?