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COLUMN

Another Look at Bradley

Michael J. Ring

If any of the candidates in the presidential race has not received a fair shake from the press, surely it is former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley.

The Democratic insurgent came within 7,000 votes of upsetting an entrenched vice-president enjoying the full backing of the party machinery in New Hampshire. Yet Bradley has fallen off the radar screen in the past two weeks -- victim of the McCain phenomenon.

Yes, the Arizona senator buried everybody in New Hampshire, exceeding even his own expectations by crushing frontrunner George W. Bush by 18 percentage points. Yes, he humiliated Bush 62-19 among Independents and split the Republican vote evenly with Bush, darling of the party apparatchiks. Yes, John McCain is energetic, straightfowrard, and the most personally compelling of the candidates running for president and was the obvious winner coming out of the Granite State.

But largely ignored over the past two weeks is the adversity which Bradley has overcome to be considered a serious player in this race.

Last summer, Bradley was considered no more than a token opponent, a minor inconvienence to Al Gore’s inevitable coronation. While Gore went around the nation bragging about how he invented the Internet and discovered Love Canal, Bradley campaigned on a more substantive plane. He talked about issues -- health care, campaign finance reform, gun registration -- which resonated with the electorate, and Bradley slowly but surely gained in the polls throughout the fall. Meanwhile McCain engaged Bush in a similar battle with similar success on the Republican side of the debate. By the turn of the year both the Democratic and Republican races in New Hampshire were 50/50 propositions.

Things broke McCain’s way in January. Admittedly, Bradley’s own mistakes contributed to his loss of momentum. McCain’s decision to skip Iowa, friendly to each party’s favorite son, proved to be a stroke of political genius in New Hampshire. Bradley was also too slow to respond to the distortions and lies of Gore, a slick campaigner who learned at the feet of the master of below-the-belt politics.

But Saturday’s results in South Carolina burst, at least temporarily, the McCain bubble. The Straight Talk Express ran off the road in the Palmetto State, thanks largely to negative campaigning by Bush. While the two states that vote today -- Arizona, McCain’s home state, and Michigan, a state with millions of McCain-friendly independents and blue-collar Democrats -- might quickly right the Arizona senator’s upstart campaign, the events in South Carolina should force the voting public to refocus and remember there is a second strong reform candidate in this presidential race.

While several Republican primaries intervene in the closing days of February, the next major event on the Democratic side is two weeks from today. Indeed, the first two Tuesdays in March will settle the nomination contests for both parties. Massachusetts votes on March 7th and is joined by several large states including California and New York. On the 14th the South takes center stage as Texas and Florida anchor contests in six states.

There is hope for Bradley yet. The five remaining New England states -- home to both liberals and independents, two Bradley constituencies -- all vote on the 7th. The former Knicks star can also capitalize on his basketball connections in New York and Connecticut. If Bradley can win enough states on the 7th, he can take momentum south and try for the upset on the 14th. A Bradley victory is a longshot, to be sure, but not a total uncertainty either.

Independents attracted to McCain’s message of reform should take another look at Bradley. The two are running eerily parallel campaigns -- stressing themes of political finance and good government against better-funded opponents. Bradley deserves another look from Democrats as well. This year’s big issue on the Democratic side -- health care -- has been driven entirely by the former New Jersey senator, whose plan was rated superior to Gore’s by the independent Consumer’s Union.

John McCain is an honorable man with a powerful message, and I fully hope he wins the Republican nomination. However, his victory should not come at the expense of another reformer with even bigger and better ideas about the future of America. Before you cast your vote in the upcoming primaries, shouldn’t you take a second look at Bill Bradley?