Advantage to Gore in Showdown at the Apollo

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Ostensibly, there was little conventional about Monday night's Democratic presidential debate. Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields announced to the crowd at Harlem's Apollo Theater that it was "the first-ever presidential debate in a predominantly African-American neighborhood." A mezzanine box of Bill Bradley supporters included filmmaker Spike Lee, Harvard philosopher Cornel West, rapper Usher and L.A. Lakers coach Phil Jackson. But while the setting and faces were untraditional, the results were familiar: The candidates appeared ideologically similar — and, as has been the case in recent encounters, emerging alpha male Al Gore seemed to bull his way to the upper hand.

The event, cosponsored by CNN and TIME magazine (which, like TIME Daily, are owned by Time Warner), saw the candidates discuss a wide range of issues of concern to African Americans, from racial profiling by police to investment in inner-city schools. But it was as notable for its prolonged volley of character attacks as for any light it shed on the concerns of blacks. Judging from crowd reaction, the winning blows were scored by Gore when he claimed that racial profiling was invented in New Jersey, the state Bradley represented in the Senate for 18 years, and when Bradley appeared to question the intellect of black leaders. In response to a question about Gore's character, Bradley said that Gore was just using the event to pay lip service to minorities, but actually had a "conservative Democrat" voting record as a congressman and senator. When Gore fired back that he's been endorsed by many prominent blacks, including most of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bradley drew loud boos by responding that those leaders didn't know Gore's voting record as well as he did. Gore drew a rousing ovation with the retort: "In my experience the Black Caucus is pretty savvy. They know more than you think they know."

The exchange highlighted a key difference between the Republican and Democratic races: While John McCain has effectively exploited George W. Bush's status as a party insider, Bradley has been unable to make much of Gore's closeness to the reins of power. Bradley, who trails Gore in all 15 states that vote in the March 7 Super Tuesday primaries, has the monumental task of derailing the second-in-command to a president with high approval ratings at a time of unprecedented national prosperity.

Gore's advantage was in dramatic view in the hours before the debate. While a half-block line of ticket-holding locals formed to one side of the theater's entrance, the other side was mobbed by sign-toting Bradley and Gore supporters — mostly white and college-aged. The Gore group dwarfed the Bradley contingent. And despite the bustle of 125th Street, upper Manhattan's main thoroughfare, the block was dominated by the rhythmic chant "You, you know the story. Tell the whole wide world this is Gore territory." Harlem congressman Charles Rangel, in a thinly veiled rehashing of his Gore endorsement, told the crowd: "We have to make sure that when it's all over we can stand together and win the big one."

After the event, while reporters and some of the attendees gathered at the United House of Prayer across the street from the Apollo, Professor Cornel West — one of the nation's foremost authorities on race relations — and the Rev. Al Sharpton discussed Bradley's lukewarm reception during the debate. "He just doesn't have the delivery," noted Sharpton. "It's a shame," said West. David Dinkins, who was New York's first black mayor, told TIME Daily: "I like Bradley, he's a good person, but I have to support the man who's got the best chance of getting into the White House, and that's Al Gore."