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COLUMN

A Two-for-One Deal for Democrats

Michael J. Ring

After grinding through a boring and lackluster spring and summer, the substance of Campaign 2000 should finally arrive this season. Some of the weaker candidates will probably drop out, while the remaining contestants begin to spar over issues -- and who can best represent his or her party in the general election.

For Republicans, the contrast between ideological purity and electability looms sharply this primary season. Unless you haven’t seen a television news program or read a newspaper within the past year, you already know that Texas Governor George W. Bush is the odds-on choice to win the Republican nomination. Buoyant poll numbers and a deluge of cash guarantee he will be the favorite.

Although Bush’s record is generally conservative, it apparently is not conservative enough for some in the Republican Party. New Hampshire senator Bob Smith, with a longshot, quixotic quest for the White House of his own, has already bolted the Republican Party and is now an Independent. Rumors swirl that the fiery and eloquent Pat Buchanan will seek the Reform Party’s nomination because of dissatisfaction with Bush. Archconservatives such as Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer will surely question Bush’s committal to the party’s social agenda as well.

On the Democratic side, however, there need not be any such argument. One candidate on the Democratic ballot can best lay claim to the dual mantles of ideological purity and electability. That candidate is former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley.

Both Al Gore and Bill Bradley, while in the United States Senate, shared left-of-center but not liberal voting records. In the present, as Vice President Gore has sought to remain in the centrist New Democrat mold, Bradley has been pushing several programs sure to curry favor with voters (such as myself) who feel Gore is too moderate.

Bradley has been more aggressive than Gore on gun control. The former New Jersey senator has outlined a comprehensive gun control proposal. His ideas include banning cheap handguns, or so-called “Saturday Night Specials”, requiring registration of all handguns, requiring trigger locks for handguns, and limiting handgun purchases. While Gore also makes some of the same proposals, his call for photo licensing for handgun purchasers falls short of Bradley’s registration proposal.

Bradley’s health care proposals also go further than those of Gore. The former New Jersey senator, while not promising universal coverage, has said he will strive toward that goal and make a proposal coming close to universal coverage. Gore’s health care ideas, including insuring all children by the year 2005 and expanding Medicare and Medicaid coverage, are more incremental.

And only Bradley can lay claim to one of the most important issues of all to Democrats --economic justice. Vice President Gore supported Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1996 welfare “reform” bill, which in reality destroyed the safety net for our nation’s poor. As a senator, Bradley voted against this extremely punitive bill.

While Bradley’s proposals are more progressive than those of Gore, skeptics will argue that those very proposals endearing himself to liberal voters in a Democratic primary will be his Achilles’ heel in a general election with a more centrist pool of voters. Recent polling data, however, suggests otherwise.

A WBZ-TV/Boston Globe poll taken during the last week of August showed Bradley has caught Gore among likely Democratic primary voters in the critical state of New Hampshire. The poll found 40 percent of likely voters supported Gore while 36 percent supported Bradley -- a statistical dead heat considering the poll’s margin of error. Even more revealing were supplemental questions asked in the poll.

The survey found Bradley’s issues are resonating with both Democrats and Republicans. An overwhelming 77 percent of Democrats in the poll favored handgun registration -- one of Bradley’s signature issues. But 59 percent of “Live Free or Die State” Republicans in the survey also favored registration.

Health care, another issue on which Bradley is strong, is resonating as well. The likely Democratic voters in the poll named it as the most important issue facing the nation. Among Republicans, health care reform ranked second most important.

Finally, there is the question the Gore campaign won’t touch with a ten-foot pole -- the question of integrity. No, Al Gore did not lie about sex and face an embarrassing impeachment trial like his boss. But he did visit make that now-infamous visit to a Buddhist temple that turned out to be a fundraiser. (Think of his credibility on campaign finance reform.) The skeletons of scandal have not missed Al Gore during his vice-presidential tenure.

Even Democrats in the New Hampshire poll showed a hunger for a change in direction. Twenty-one percent of Democrats surveyed said they want current government officials to stay, while 39 percent voiced desire for a change.

The political kingmakers known as independents are also warm toward Bradley and cool to Gore. Bradley holds a 51-to-31 percent lead over Gore among independents likely to take a Democratic ballot in the New Hampshire primary. Gore’s unfavorable ratings among independents are much higher than those of Bradley, according to the survey. Those with no political affiliation are more interested in ideas than scandal and partisan mudslinging. Bradley is their candidate.

Bradley isn’t the perfect candidate for many liberal groups -- he supports NAFTA, for example, and has not been as close to labor as many other Democrats. But the same is true of Gore.

Many of the differences in their proposals are not black-and-white contrasts, but rather shades of gray. But Bradley has the better shades of gray. On the whole, his proposals are to the left of the Vice President’s --and more with the mainstream of what traditional Democrats expect.

So while Republicans squabble over whether to nominate a candidate who is perceived as either electable or ideologically acceptable to the party, Democrats need not face such a fight. Bill Bradley is both the more ideologically acceptable contestant to mainstream Democrats, and the more palatable Democratic candidate to voters in a general election.