Does Gentle Debate Mean Bradley Is Bowing Out?

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Seriously behind in points, Bill Bradley needed to deliver a knockout punch in Wednesday night's debate, the type of blow that would draw the headlines that have eluded his candidacy since the primary season began in late January. Instead, the ex-senator employed the dubious fight plan of laying off of his opponent, getting in only the occasional soft jab. Bradley barely mentioned Gore during the debate, reversing his previous tack of criticizing the veep's wavering on such issues as abortion and gun control, and instead emphasizing his own agenda. In the end, the only headlines Bradley garnered were for his lack of fight. The Los Angeles Times headlined its debate story "No Sparks Fly," while the Washington Post summed up: "Democrats Tone It Down." Before the debate, Bradley told reporters he would spend the remaining days before Tuesday, when 16 states vote in Democratic primaries, touting his own "idealism," beginning with a prime-time five-minute ad Thursday night on CBS.

The strategy shift would seem to be a prelude for a graceful fade-out from the presidential picture. "All of Bradley's body language seems to indicate that he realizes that the race is over," says TIME political correspondent Karen Tumulty. "So now he's trying to frame what his legacy is. By making his last images as someone who's run a clean campaign, he's trying to be remembered for how he affected the nature of campaigning. It's also not entirely out of the question that he's trying to position himself for a place on a Gore ticket."

Yet according to Bradley, he'll fight on. In a pre-debate press conference Bradley quoted Mark Twain: "The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated." Are they? It's true that the candidates are fairly close in the delegate count and that only a small fraction of the nominating votes have been cast (there are more than 30 times as many votes at stake Tuesday as have been decided already), but Gore is comfortably ahead in the polls in every voting state and, barring an aggressive last-minute move by Bradley or a gaffe by Gore, there's no reason to expect an upset. During the debate the two candidates were asked what their biggest mistakes in life were. Bradley responded that he regretted putting too much pressure on himself as a rookie for the New York Knicks, which led him to get depressed about his failure to meet his own expectations. This time around he seems to have learned to lower those expectations.