Leading the fight are the chiefs of Los Angles' Berman-Waxman political organization, trying to put the mayor at a disadvantage by portraying him as an "old ideas" copy of Walter F. Mondale, the party standard bearer in the overwhelming defeat last year.
This local drama is in many ways a miniature view of what is happening nationally to a Democratic Party struggling to find a formula for victory.
Ironically, the leaders of the anti-Bradley movement have their roots in a part of Los Angeles that personifies the now- scorned ideas.
They are Reps. Henry Waxman and Howard Berman (both D-Los Angeles); they head a political organization controlling congressional and legislative seats in an area reaching from south of the Santa Monica Freeway, including the Westside, and extending over the Santa Monica Mountains to the San Fernando Valley.
Waxman's political career began in the Beverly-Fairfax area. Among the residents of this middle-class area of homes, apartments and shops are large numbers of Jewish voters. Many are elderly men and women who remember with pride their votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. They do not mock the "old politics" uniting various interest groups in a common goal of economic and social justice. To them, old politics means jobs and a measure of future economic security. Mondale carried this area, as he did the entire city.
But Berman, Waxman and their allies are thinking beyond the boundaries of their portions of Los Angeles, concerned about the political control of the state.
Conversations with Berman and Waxman allies, who asked that their names not be used, indicated that the Westsiders are concerned about a huge Democratic defeat in the 1986 state election.
Republican Gov. George Deukmejian would win another term. Democrats fear U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston could be beaten. And they are concerned that Democratic troubles will be multiplied as Californians vote on whether California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and other liberal justices should stay in office.
All that could mean the Republicans might also make gains in the congressional delegation and in Congress. Although the present gerrymandered district lines--the Berman-Waxman organization helped draw them--are supposed to guarantee Democratic victories for years, a big Republican win could help the GOP carry some supposedly safe Democratic districts.
To fight such fears, Berman, Waxman and others are pushing the mixture of thoughts that became known during the 1984 election as "new ideas" and was the centerpiece of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Mindful that Hart beat Mondale in the 1984 California primary, the organization is beginning to push another Gary Hart--this one a Democratic state senator who represents Santa Barbara and the far-western San Fernando Valley. His backers say that Gary K. Hart, 41, an environmentalist and education reformer, would be a a strong candidate for governor; he could campaign on a platform of educational and high-tech progress that many Democrats say is needed to win.
The combination of a handsome new face with a clever high-tech platform could make trouble for Bradley if he decides to run against Deukmejian next year.
But watching Tom Bradley campaign against Councilman John Ferraro in the past few weeks, clearly the threat does not bother him now. The mayor is doing what he has always done, going to every Democratic interest group, saying things that appeal to them.
At a jobs program for Latina women, he talked jobs for Latinos. Speaking to the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, a gay political organization, he promised more city appointments to gays. Speaking to the United Teachers of Los Angeles, he backed higher pay for teachers.
It is like watching Mondale campaign for Presidednt, making promises to each group making up what was once the Democratic constituency. The Mondale campaign proved such an approach was vulnerable to attack. Hart in the primaries--and President Ronald Reagan in the fall--cut Mondale up by portraying him as a prisoner of interest groups.
But the Mondale approach is not hurting Bradley in the mayoral election. That is because opponent Ferraro is also old-politics, a prisoner of an 18-year city council record that is even more traditional than the mayor's.
A week after Bradley promised more appointments to gays, Ferraro echoed him at a meeting of another gay group. Aware that San Fernando Valley residents traditionally fear being deprived of their share of the municipal pie, Ferraro told them Bradley is unfairly removing police officers to help the inner city.
To be fair to both candidates, it is difficult to make a mayoral platform into sweeping visions of a glorious future. Mayors take care of garbage collection, pothole repairs, hiring police officers and firefighters.
Yet somewhere in their debate, the candidates might well address a broader, more inspiring future for the city exemplifying so many of the country's problems and hopes.
For Bradley, the mayoral race is an opportunity to stretch out his ideas in case he later finds himself in a tough Democratic gubernatorial primary against a difficult and imaginative foe.
For now, Bradley has chosen a safer course. The Berman-Waxman organization probably does not mind that: Running safer just builds up their case that Tom Bradley is too old-politics to win in 1986.