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Democrat Bradley Says He’ll Leave Senate : Politics: Many thought the former basketball star had White House potential. Decision to step down after third term strengthens GOP hand.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Denouncing politics in America as broken, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) announced Wednesday he will step down at the end of his third term next year, further dimming chances that Democrats can regain control of the Senate in 1996.

Bradley, a celebrated collegiate and professional basketball player and former Rhodes scholar, once had been hailed as an emerging star in the Democratic Party who was expected to ultimately run for President. But he never launched a serious White House bid for the White House, and speculation recently grew that he would not seek reelection as he failed to mount serious fund-raising efforts.

“We live in a time when, on a basic level, politics is broken,” Bradley told supporters in Newark, N.J. “In growing numbers, people have lost faith in the political process and don’t see how it can help their threatened circumstances.”

Bradley stressed that he will not bow out of public life entirely but continue to speak out on race, America’s place in the world, the economic plight of the poor and the middle class, and political reform.

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With his announcement, Bradley becomes the sixth Senate Democrat to decide to retire rather than run next year.

President Clinton issued a statement praising the 52-year-old Bradley as “a voice for civility” and said his influence in the Senate “will be greatly missed.” The two have not always seen eye-to-eye, however, and Bradley has publicly criticized Clinton several times.

Sources close to Bradley said he will not challenge Clinton in the 1996 presidential primaries, a prospect that had been discussed in Washington as disagreements have escalated between the President and congressional Democrats. But the sources said Bradley has not ruled out an independent bid for the presidency.

In his resignation statement, Bradley said his disillusionment with Washington is not unlike what voters feel.

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“The political debate has settled into two familiar ruts,” he said. “The Republicans are infatuated with the ‘magic’ of the private sector and reflexively criticize government as the enemy of freedom, and the Democrats distrust the market, preach government as the answer to our problems and prefer the bureaucrat they know to the consumer they can’t control.”

What is missing from political debate now, he added, is the kind of big ambitions that guided America to settle the continent, end slavery and win two world wars.

Reflecting on Bradley’s announcement, David Guston, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said: “It shows that some of the alienation that exists among the voters seems to also exist among the politicians as well.”

While Bradley expressed disappointment with the political system, others talked of how he had disappointed those who had seen him as a natural leader ever since he was an all-America basketball player at Princeton University.

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“He has failed to live up to his promise as the national political star,” said Thomas Mann a political analyst at the Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan Washington research and policy organization. “What Democrats saw in him was the perfect resume: the athlete, the Rhodes scholar, the fine human being. All of it seemed absolutely ideal. They saw him as the Democrats’ salvation. It didn’t develop. Perhaps he didn’t have the fire in the belly.”

First elected to the Senate in 1978, he emerged as the leader on a major issue only a few times--most notably in shaping the 1986 tax reform bill. In his first two terms, he tended to focus on one issue at a time--whether it was tax policy or relations with the former Soviet Union. After almost losing his seat in 1990, however, he broadened his strategy to encompass more issues--most notably race relations and the economic troubles of the middle class and the poor.

Senators from both parties agree that his resignation will make it tougher for Democrats to hold their ground in the Senate--much less regain the majority they lost in November’s elections. Republicans now control the Senate, 54-46.

“It will be slightly more difficult to keep an optimistic view on Democratic chances for next year,” Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said, specifying that he no longer holds out hope of regaining the majority.

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Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Bradley’s withdrawal a “golden opportunity” for his party to win his seat in New Jersey.

In the last few years, New Jersey voters have given Republicans majorities in both state legislative chambers, elected a GOP governor and sent more Republicans than Democrats to the U.S. House for the first time in 30 years.

Rep. Dick Zimmer (R-N.J), a moderate who has already raised more than $1.2 million for a Senate campaign, was buoyed by Bradley’s decision. “Bill Bradley is universally known in New Jersey, and well liked. None of the prospective Democratic substitutes are.”

Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) also said Bradley’s decision intensifies her interest in a Senate bid.

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Even if Bradley had run for reelection, there was no guarantee the race would have been easy.

In 1990, New Jersey voters came close to giving him an earlier retirement. He pulled out a narrow victory over a then-unknown Republican, Christine Todd Whitman, even though he outspent her twelvefold. Buoyed by her strong showing, Whitman was elected governor in 1992.

Bradley’s 1990 victory came with the assistance of some Californians, including Disney Chairman Michael Eisner. Bradley’s friendship with Eisner was crucial to helping him raise $900,000 from political action committees and individuals in California.


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