Dems' Last Pre-Iowa Debate Gives Edge to Al

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Al Gore and Bill Bradley's broad agreement on racial issues may be bad news for the former senator from New Jersey. The last Democratic candidates' debate ahead of next week's Iowa caucuses was a Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event sponsored by a coalition of African-American and Latino voter groups in Iowa, and saw both men upholding affirmative action, vowing to appoint minorities to senior positions, condemning the flying of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina legislature and generally advancing minority interests. "The most striking thing about the debate was that after all these months of silence about Bill Clinton, Gore invoked his name twice last night," says TIME Washington correspondent Karen Tumulty. "But then he was talking to a constituency where the Presidentís appeal remains very strong." And thatís why although Bradley tried to draw a line in the sand on racial profiling in law enforcement, the event for the most part underscored Gore's successful defense against the former New York Knick's best game.

Bradley entered the campaign with his legacy as a racial healer as his signature issue, and yet Gore remains well ahead among African-American Democrats on the eve of the primaries. But then, trying to slice away at African-American voters' loyalty to the Clinton administration was always going to be a three-pointer from way, way downtown for Bradley. Polls currently show Gore ahead in Iowa and Bradley ahead in New Hampshire. But after that, in early March, the primary circus swings south, and the vice president's sharp lead among African-American voters in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississipi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas may put an end to Bradley's challenge. "Race may be his signature issue," says Tumulty, "but Bradley appears to be making virtually no inroads on Gore among black voters." So the insurgent may outshine Gore on minority issues in a game of one-on-one, but not necessarily by enough of a margin to reel in the Clinton administration's coattails.